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Tokyo/Japan How-To’s

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t says:  Before we left on our trip, we pooled as many resources as possible to ensure our visit to Japan would go smoothly.  Neither of us speak Japanese, we have no friends/family to show us around, and we’ve never been!  We had a great time, and we’re going to put some tips/tricks here just so we can find them on a future date (for our next trip!).

TRANSPORTATION:
JR pass is amazing to get around using the Shinkansen.  If you’re going to at least make one trip on a bullet train out and back, they’re pretty much worth it.  We did get the “green pass” which is a bit pricier than normal, but it offered the convenience of  reserved seats for some of the longer legs of our journey which was useful (sometimes the trains can be quite packed and we’d rather not be forced to stand).  To get one of these passes (green or regular), the cheapest way is to purchase a voucher while you’re still in the states, and then bring it to a “JR Service Center” (we used the one in Narita Airport), who will swap out your voucher for the actual pass (which you must not lose as it’s irreplaceable).  It’s also useful to know which bullet trains you want to go on and when (use hyperdia.com) so you can book the reserved seats at the same time you exchange your voucher for a pass.  This includes making a reservation on a train to get to Tokyo (e.g. the Narita Express).  Keep in mind that this will not cover certain bullet trains (e.g. Nozomi), so when you search hyperdia, be sure to click “off” those trains in the search options.
– JR is not the same as the Metro, although both have local stops in the city and have routes that show up on google maps.  If you have one of those JR passes, and you intend to use a local JR line, you can just flash your pass at the attendant at the turnstile and he/she’ll wave you in.  If you plan on using the Metro, or if you don’t have a JR pass but want to use the local JR line, you can either purchase a ticket (there are electronic kiosks with English option in the upper right hand corner) or do what we did and just get a Suica card (Pasco cards are available, too, but we heard that Suica is more flexible).  These cards can be purchased at a variety of subway stations, and help you breeze through the turnstiles at all stations (just keep in mind that if you have a JR pass and are using a JR line, don’t swipe your Suica card because it’ll charge you for something that you should be doing for free!).  The Suica card can also be used at some vending machines and convenience stores, so it’s quite handy.  We were also impressed that you input your information when you buy one (e.g. name), and it gets printed on the card!  And it’s such a cute card! (it has a penguin on it!). While you have a JR pass, try to use the JR lines, but otherwise the Metro trips are usually on the order of $1-3 depending on where you’re going.
– Taxis are plentiful.  They usually operate in cash, but we’ve seen a few advertising some kind of Taxi pay application, but we never got to check it out.
– Last train is at midnight, and taxis get to jack up their prices; plan accordingly

GENERAL:
– Cash is preferable in most places – so make sure you have some around.  ATMs will dispense 10k JPY ($100 USD) bills unlike the US ATM’s fixation on $20 bills, which can be a bit unwieldy, so make sure you pick some more granular quantities so you can get some small bills, too.
– No tips, nowhere, for nothing.
– Finding a trashcan is harder than finding a needle in a haystack – keep a small plastic bag on your so you can sequester your garbage as you travel.
– We traveled around with a 30L hiking backpack.  Try not to go much bigger than this because otherwise you’ll bump into people on trains and be unable to stick it in those baskets under your seat at restaurants, making it (and you) quite annoying.  Just having a hiking backpack will immediately label you as tourist – but if you’re like us and rain follows you around everywhere, you’ll appreciate its waterproofness as you carry around your necessary electronics and retail purchases.
– Eating on trains like Shinkansen is fine – eating while walking is rude (so stand still!).
– Some stores offer tax-free purchases – but they need to attach stuff to your passport.  Customs didn’t give us any problems with our purchases (g and I got some clothes, shoes, souvenirs – you know – the usual).
– Rent a WiFi hotspot from the airport – they’re amazing for giving you constant access to google maps and photos of exteriors of restaurants.  They can get pricey, but are totally worth it.
– Bring along an extra battery.  My phone (iPhone 6S) could only go for about 6-8 hours with all the Google Mapping we were doing (with brightness turned down).  We got ours from Amazon (EasyAcc 1675 mAh portable charger) which allowed us to plug in multiple products on the go, and we coupled it with a multi-port plug (Anker Quick Charge 3.0 42W 3-port USB Wall Charger PowerPort+) so we could charge all of our peripherals at night through a single, two-pronged socket (which is the normal in Japan).  The portable charger (without plug) does weigh almost a pound with the necessary cords, but it’s worth it.  For us, 1200 mAh portable charger would have probably been fine and saved some weight – we just didn’t know at the time we bought it.

NEIGHBORHOODS:
– Toranomon: has a fantastic luxury hotel (Andaz), but is kind of in the middle of nowhere.  That said, it is convenient to a few metro stations that can get you anywhere you need to go, and is only short hike to the fish market and Ginza.  Not a destination in and of itself, but not a bad place to stay.
– Ginza/Maranouchi: some pretty good shopping, including some flagships (Muji, Uniqlo, KitKat).  A good place to venture after a morning at Tsukiji.  Close proximity to Imperial palace.
– Tsukiji: needs no further introduction.  It’s still there! (They haven’t moved it for the Olympics … yet).  Close proximity to Hamarikyu Gardens.
– Asakusa: a cute area with a few tourist attractions (e.g. Sensoji) as well as “kitchen row”
– Shinjuku: a busy shopping area with some big department stores.
– Shibuya: an even busier shopping area with a variety of stores – also Meiji shrine
– Harajuku: our favorite place to shop, as there are some side streets with some incredible “streetwear” that we were usually not cool enough to wear.
– Ebisu: a funky neighborhood that we ventured to to go the three Kapital shops (that I was most certainly not cool enough to wear – g had some good finds, though!).

HOTELS:
– g and I did credit card churning to make this trip happen, which meant that we had an allegiance to Hyatt hotels (the good ‘ol Chase-Hyatt-United trifecta).  The Andaz was amazing.  We did the standard king rooms, which were spacious, comfortable, clean, and full of amenities (free non-alcoholic drinks/snacks, free toiletries, spacious  tubs).  The view is absolutely killer (and all the rooms are at least 47 floors off the ground, so you’re guaranteed to see something in the distance!).  The staff was very nice and accommodating.  The hotel rooftop bar was ok (a bit pricy, but worth it for the views … although you have the same view from your room, soooooooo …), and there is the flexibility of the Toronamon building eateries below (and a Bicycle Coffee shop nearby – which was great!).  With churning, there was absolutely zero cost (not even taxes!) – amazing!  Definitely worth using Hyatt free-night passes, and even worth the 25k/night points!  The only drawback is its location (it’s not in glitzier Shibuya/Shinjuku), but it has a few nearby stations and is walkable to the fish market and Ginza.
– We considered the remaining Hyatt hotels, but because our trip was cut short, we couldn’t stay at any of them, so we’ll never know if any are better.  Park Hyatt in Shinjuku is supposed to be the crown jewel of Tokyo’s Hyatt’s (at 30k/night points), however, it gets a bit of a bad rap because it’s in need of an upgrade (but how do you turn down the “Lost In Translation” hotel?).  Maybe someone will let us know how it goes?  It also hard to justify the cost of the Park Hyatt because the Hyatt Regency across the street is far more reasonable in terms of Hyatt points (only 12k/night!, “Club King” for 18k!).  Grand Hyatt is Roppongi is even more in the middle of nowhere than Andaz, so we didn’t even consider it.
– If you end up Naoshima, go for Benesse House.  It’s quite costly, but the transportation around the island maximizes your experience.
– The Hyatt Regency in Kyoto is “ok”.  It has a reputation of being “as good as a Park Hyatt”, but I certainly hope not for Park Hyatt’s sake.  Nothing was at all bad – but the rooms are pretty standard (clean, reasonable size) without anything to give it a sense of “luxury”.

KNIVES:
– One of the more famous things people shop for in Japan is knives.  I have some opinions about this, as a bit of a Japanese knife enthusiast.  The most commonly visited shops in Tokyo are generally near Tsukiji (Masamoto Tsukiji, Aritsugu) or near Asakusa’s Kappabashi (Kamata, Kama Asa).  However, the brands in these stores can frequently be found at retailers in the US or shipped to the US (the world is a whole lot smaller now through the internet), so most shops in Tokyo/Kyoto don’t offer a lot of sparkle for true knife nuts (i.e. if you can read about it in a foodie’s blog, a knife nut won’t be interested).
– For the persnickety folks, there are some small maker’s spots in more remote places (e..g Sakai), or some very high end stuff (think price tags starting at $1000) worth checking out in Tokyo/Kyoto.
– All this said, for newbies, the above Tokyo shops are great for picking up your first set of Japanese knives after being allowed to touch/hold them in store.  You never forget your first Japanese knives.  My recommendation is to get an idea of what you are looking for ahead of time (Western-style double-bevel is most common; buying a single-bevel Japanese style requires specific cutting technique and sharpening) so you don’t get distracted by all the shiny tools.
– What did I buy?  After dragging g to multiple shops, Kamata had some good prices on some Swedish carbon Misono, so I bought one of those (they sell a lot of “house brand” stuff that I just didn’t know much about).  Got it for $110 instead of $190!  Not bad!

RESTAURANTS:
– Gyoza: Harajuku Gyozaro and Tenryu Ginza – both gyozas were great, with the former’s being smaller/denser and served in a casual atmosphere, while the latter’s are fluffier/lighter in more of a Chinese restaurant atmosphere.
– Ramen Breakdown:
— best pork: Rokurinsha (in Tokyo station, tsukemmen style)
— best noodle: Nagi Golden Gai (Shinjuku, “special” = shoyu style)
— Tsukemmen: Fuunji was less touristy, while Rokurinsha was more convenient – both were great!
— “something different”: Ginza Kagari (Tori Paitan), Soranoiro (Veggie Ramen)
– Pork Katsu: Butagumi

RESTAURANT REGRETS:
— Tonki Katsu: never made it but we wanted to compare it to Butagumi
— Tonkatsu Maisen: a chain of tonkatsu places that is supposed to be pretty darn consistent – not high on our list but good to know it was there
— Soba Genroku: located close to Andaz, it was our backup in case we got sick of ramen … we never did
— Kaikaya by the Sea: tons of testimonials as to how great this place was – however, we had to cut our trip short so we bailed on our reservations – bummer!!
— Nodaiwa: a restaurant that specializes in eel – man am I sad I missed that!
— Kotaro: needed a “native Japanese” person to make reservations – they wouldn’t take one from our hotel concierge!  It made me want to go there even more!
— Shima and Ginza Hirayama are both well-known for their steaks, but are quite pricey.  That said, they both offer sandwiches “to go”.  Usually reserved for take-away after you enjoy one of their set menus for dinner/lunch, there is a way to call ahead and see if they have any “extra” for sale at lunchtime.  Not cheap at something like $60-80 for a set of sandwiches, they have always looked amazing and every blogger says it’s worth it.  Andaz agreed to call for us if we wanted to make it happen, but we just never got around to it!
— Fancy Sushi/Omakaze: you’ll notice that g and I didn’t do any “fancy” places in Tokyo.  It’s not that we couldn’t decide (we got tons of great recs), rather, we opted to just enjoy the more reasonable places.  We didn’t want to dress up.  We didn’t want to make a fuss.  Maybe we’re getting older.  Maybe we’re getting stingier and crotchetier (?sp?).  But if a bowl of ramen or a plate of fried pork could make us that happy while being a uniquely Japanese experience, then why pay more?  Nevertheless, gun-to-my-head, I think we would have sought out that sushi place by Jiro’s younger son.  That and Aronia de Takazawa (super-jelly of some friends that got to go!).

OTHER REGRET: We were too late to get tickets for the Yayoi Kusama museum.  Missed it by one day!

MORE RAMEN: we have a map of ramen joints (about 40) throughout Tokyo – so if you want to know where they are, let us know (afterdinnersneeze_at_gmail).

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Japan was amazing.  g and I can’t wait to go back.  We have a sense that there’s so much more to see (go further south!   go further north!  go back to Tokyo!).  Because I was especially moved by the contemporary art at Naoshima, I’m feeling like the tri-annual Art Setouchi festival is the next time we should go – so how’s everyone feel about 2019?

Written by afterdinnersneeze

22 October 2017 at 5:46pm

Beating Typhoon Lan to the Punch

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t says:  So … in typical g & t fashion, rain followed us on vacation.  We’re not sure why this happens, but it seems like no matter where we go, rain follows: SF, Paris, Rioja/SSB, Hawaii.  Well this time, we truly outdid ourselves; a typhoon was set to hit Tokyo on the day we were supposed to leave.  ARGH!  Dare we get try to stick it out and get stranded in Tokyo?  Nope.  Too risky.  United was happy to change our flights (which means that they were fearing delays messing with their schedules), and we had enough points to move around our hotel reservations such that we’d stay at our swank hotel for the duration of our trip (more later!).  So there we were: two-and-a-half days to make the most out of Tokyo.  Challenge accepted.

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Wait -what?  Is that pork katsu again?  Surely we must have made a mistake and double-posted pics!  Surely we would not have eaten at the same restaurant twice on our trip, because that’d be lunacy!  Well, we did … kinda …  You see, it all started because we needed to hit up Roppongi Hills to check it out.  Turns out that when it’s raining, you don’t want to see much else around Roppongi aside from the giant mall.  So we were stranded … and hungry … in the rain … but we recognized one name of the restaurants in the complex: Butagumi.  Turns out that in addition the original location that we went to (which is a 15 minute walk away), there’s a second location in Roppongi Hills!  And so we went.  We enjoyed pork katsu again.  And it. was. delicious!  This location is more polished than the original, as it’s newer and has view of the kitchen, so you can watch your piece of pork get fried to perfection.  g and I can’t choose which one we like more, so we’ll just say: go to the original for that “rustic” experience, or go to Roppongi if you want a little more of a “show” (or a break from shopping).  Btw: I’ve never seen g actually run for food before, but she sure ran for this pig – it was that good!

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In the evening, we went to Andy’s Shin Hinomoto (not “Andy Shin’s” – it’s a Brit who runs this restaurant).  In izakaya style (think Japanese pub-style food), it offered a great mix of seafoods from raw (mmmmm … sushi), grilled, broiled, fried.  I’m only going to show you the above sashimi plate (so tasty – very un-fussy) and the following wicked creation:

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It looks like chicken wings … but it’s not … these are “gyoza-stuffed wings”.  So at the meat-end of the chicken wing, they shove gyoza filling under the skin and then cook the darn thing to a perfect golden brown.  So addictive!

And so now we’re left with just one full day in Tokyo, and three areas to visit: Shinjuku, Shibuya/Harajuku, and Ebisu (ok – so that’s four areas).  g and I set out early, finding one of the most famous 24-hour ramen joints in Tokyo: Nagi Ramen Golden Gai.  It’s not that tricky to find, but there are a lot of shops on the street so just make sure you get the right one.

Now after you enter the doorway, you ascend a flight of stairs with some cool murals on the walls.  Be careful on your climb because it’s pretty steep!  At the top of the stairs, you’ll be greeted by the vending machine.

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Obviously, we went with the “No 1” “Special Ramen” – that which they are most known for.  They also have other options which we did not explore, including a sign advertising this:

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We obviously didn’t go for it, but I figured the translation was worth posting.  Ok, so now that I showed you the machine, I need to tell you that the place is super-tiny, with nonexistent standing room behind a counter of ~8-10 people.  So basically I think people would queue outside and then proceed in when there’s room.  Then, after you put in the money and make your selections, it prints out tickets which you put on the counter when you take your seat.  Or – if you’re like us – just visit at 10am and there’s no line!

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Welcome to Golden Gai’s ramen.  Known for a shoyu style ramen, it is laced with so much fish powder that if you don’t like the dried fish taste, you will hate it.  But if you’re like us, you like that briny flavor (even though neither g nor I like sardines – but we loved this), that, when mixed with the pork and scallion yields a powerful punch to the mouth.  This is not a subtle ramen.  The ramen noodles (hidden underneath the pork, seen below) is very knobby which I think helps it cling to the soup (and makes it extra splashy!).  There’s also some sheets of what appears to be some kind of papparedelle-style noodle (upper right) that was an amazing addition.

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The egg was a few degrees past soft, but was nice and gel-ish, with only a thin rim of hard yolk.  Really, the weakest link was the pork, which was a bit tougher than at past places. It was flavorful, yes, but a bit more toothsome than we’d like to encounter without a fork/knife handy.  Overall, though, this was my favorite non-tsukemmen ramen (up to this point on the trip).

We walked around shinjuku some, which had quite a few mall-ish department stores and somehow managed to work up an appetite for lunch (shopping makes us hungry!).  We rallied and wound up at Fuunji ramen:

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This is what the outside looks like when they’re closed.  Fortunately, we made it there at 2:56pm – just before they put up this sign.  g feared that they’d turn us away, but they didn’t!  Instead, you walk in, punch your order into the machine, and wait patiently in a single row behind the eating counter, even if the clock goes past 3.  By 3:20pm, we were seated with this:

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This plate is deceiving – the “regular” (pictured above) was  plenty of noodle for us – but we did see some get the “large”.  That bowl of dipping broth was incredible.  A perfectly cooked egg, a healthy dose of fish powder, and a thick, smooth broth.  It was on par with Rokurinsha’s broth, for sure.  The pork was a step behind Rokurinsha’s, but the noodles were a step ahead.  We liked this atmosphere better than Rokurinsha (there were zero other tourists there, and you had a view of the kitchen from the counter), so we’d definitely leave it on the list if you’re looking for a retreat from the hustle/bustle of Shinjuku.

So now that we double-noodled it in a single day, there really was only one thing to do: eat fruit.  What better way to do it than to visit one of Tokyo’s famous “fruit parlors”:

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We visited Takano fruit parlor and were wowed by the crazy prices – fruit baskets in excess of 10k JPY!  Crazy!  We did see some sort of fruit preparation class going on as well – how adorable!  Importantly, we visited the fourth (?or maybe fifth?) floor, where you can eat some fruit!  There are two options: a buffet, where for a set price, they let you loose for something like 2 hours for all-you-can eat.  We opted for the a la carte seats, where we ordered up some amazing parfaits, like the poorly-shot fig one above.  Let’s just say that the figs were absolutely amazing – better than the ones I buy from farmer’s markets in SF!  And there were layers of sorbet, ice cream, whipped cream, and preserves that were all crazy-good.  Yes, $15 is way-expensive for you imagine a Whole Foods could make, but I swear it was worth totally worth it.  And with all this fruit, g was ear-to-ear smiles.  If she could ever have one of these after a pork katsu, she’d be in heaven!

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After all of the delightful foods of the day, we finished off with a bang with some dumplings at Harajuku Gyoza-ro.  This is probably more like a casual dumpling-izakaya than a true “restaurant”.  For $3, you get six gyoza, and a normal person might be able to down 12 of these pint-sized dumplings.  Options include steamed vs. fried, and original vs. leek-garlic.  These were a very different style than the ones we had at Tenryu, which were larger and stuffed with an airy filling – these were smaller and denser, closer to the wontons that mom makes.  I preferred these – just order a mess of gyoza, share with friends, kick back with some sake (or beer if you can tolerate bubbles), and let the good times roll.  There are a fair number of tourists, but even our Japanese friends vouch for this place, so it’s pretty legit.

And that brings us to our final meal in Tokyo.  After a morning of intense packing (g is a “master packer”), we rewarded ourselves with one final ramen.  We initially ditched our bags in Tokyo station coin locker and lined up for Rokurinsha.  However, we didn’t want to run late, just in case some tourists were going to slow the line down (it was the weekend), so I pulled out our ramen map and found one other shop on Tokyo Station’s “ramen street”: Soranoiro Nippon.  Reknowned for lighter styles of ramen, including a “veggie ramen”, we decided that this would be a way to get our fill while remaining nimble and agile for all of the running around stations/airports that awaited us.

On the left, I went for the yuzu shio, which was superb.  Featuring a thin, al dente noodle, the broth was light and flavorful (a light citrusy note was accented the porkier/chickenier base), with tenderpieces of pork and chicken.  Meanwhile, g went with the veggie ramen, which had a carrot-based broth and carrot noodles.  While the taste was not at all ramen-y (i.e. no alkaline flavor, not quite as firm), and without the addition of umami (mushroom, meat, seafood) it was a bit on the sweeter side.  That said, g felt it was “exactly what she needed” for the day’s adventures.  We were pretty happy with the choice – but we wouldn’t recommend going there early in the trip if you’re in Tokyo.  Go to the other places, get your pork on (with other bold flavors featured in tonkotsu and tsukemmen), and then, before you leave, move on to bowls of shio (or veggie) at places like this one and you really appreciate it more.

And there you have it – almost all of our foods for the trip!  One last post on some Japan tips/tricks!

Written by afterdinnersneeze

22 October 2017 at 3:30am

Posted in in Japan

Triumphant Return to Tokyo

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t says:  Gawd we love the shinkansen.  If we had to retire, we’d move to Tokyo and g would have a part time gig doing the voice-acting for the overhead announcements: “Welcome to the Shin-Kan-Sen”.  The ride is punctual, smooth, and offers carts of snacks that make the rounds every so often.  Plenty of leg room, seats that recline so much that I couldn’t go full-recline and still work, and electric outlets!  It really is just so civilized.    And the safety record is sick: over 50 years with 10 billion passengers, there have been no derailment/collision-related fatalities (source: wikipedia).

Ok – enough about trains … on to food …

I made a bit of a scheduling error for our first night back in Tokyo.  We arrived at the hotel at 6:35pm.  Our tonkatsu reservation (not to be confused with tonkotsu, a style of ramen), which I thought I had scheduled the following night, was actually that night at 7pm.  The directions clearly said: anyone showing up more than 15 minutes late will have their reservations cancelled.  Yikes.  Ok.  Time to get a move on.  We rushed through the hotel check-in process, found an ATM, and caught a cab.  We literally arrived at 7:14pm.  We were rewarded with this:

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Butagumi is a pork specialist.  They have maybe 4 types of tenderloin and 4 types of sirloin at any given time (their menu is something like up to 15 of each), ranging from European pork (see the Iberico, above) to Japanese pork (including some highly sought after cows).  We tried to order three dishes but was politely warned by our server: “it is very big”.  On one hand, we were lied to – they weren’t “big”, rather extraordinarily appropriate.  Between the pork, the rice, the slaw, and the best miso soup I ever had (there were little tiny clam/cockel shells in it! g interjects: I thought the one at Sushi bun was better – it had a whole head-on prawn in it! t compromises: maybe we’ll have to go back and try that one again.), we were stuffed.  Another order of pork would have definitely resulted in leftovers.  As far as the pork choices, g and I disagree on which one was better.  I liked mine, she liked hers.  Mine, the sirloin, with its nice band of fat, was very very tasty.  Quite possibly the best cooked and best tasting pork I’ve ever had.  g liked her tenderloin, which was the leaner, but softer, more delicate tasting meat.   Even the wine was good – the house white was some kind of German gruner I’m guessing – bright and mouth-watering – just what the pork needed.  g proclaims: this was the best meal we had thus far.  t takes the mic back: I’d agree.  On one hand, yes, it was a lot of $$$ for some pork.  But on the other, it was wonderful – and I’d gladly go again just to taste some of the cheaper cuts to see if I could taste the difference!

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After recovering from our pork comas (i.e. sleeping overnight), we got right back on the saddle and sought ought tsukemmen.  Rokurinsha ramen (our fourth ramen stop thus far) was our destination.  It turns out that it was in Tokyo station … as in: it was in the station we first arrived at in Tokyo … as in: we should have eaten here instead of the hotel’s restaurant (not that it was bad – but not as good as this!  This tsukemmen was fantastic.  Don’t let the pictures fool you – there were a LOT of noodles.  You dip the noodles into the concentrated pork broth (I got the “special” that had some extra minced meat, g got the “spicy” with a shrimpy-spice condiment on the side) and then put them in your mouth.  Holy crap it was good.  That broth was like a delicious porky-sweet-salty bolognese.  g and I demolished it.  Even the slices of pork that were in it were perfect – super tender and very flavorful!  (n.b. you do have to be ok with eating cool noodles and warm dipping sauce – so the end result is never piping hot like classic ramen – so if you need it steaming, then this tsukemmen will not be your cup of tea.)

And as we walked away, looking back at the ginormous line that had formed we agreed: totally worth it.  If you’re stopping in Tokyo Station (e.g. arriving from Narita), ditch your bags in some pay lockers and get in line to eat here – don’t bother going anywhere else.  Just do it!  Advice on location (because Tokyo Station is large and disorienting): walk through Tokyo station’s ground floor (“1F”) to the Yaesu South Exit and then take the stairs down to the “shops” on 1BF below (aka “ramen street”).  And it’s the first ramen shop you see.  It’ll undoubtedly have a line that wraps around the corner – and look for the red honeycomb shape in the logo (below photo stolen from someone else’s site).

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The line moves fast (there are indicators on the ground to tell you an approximate wait time)!  With so few tourists, the locals jump in, eat, and leave.  You do have to use the machine when you get to the front of the line, and there’s a lot of peer pressure because there’s a large line behind you and the host doesn’t speak English (and the machine has no English setting), so study the online menus/pictures closely so you’re ready to pick when you get up there.

We finished off our day of sighseeing (we saw Hamarikyu Gardens and the Imperial Palace Gardens) with a chocolate reward:

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This place was awesome.  I was expecting it to be more like Naked Chocolate in Philly (RIP).  But it was actually so much better!  They offered 56 difference pieces of chocolate with a tasting sheet that explained the characteristics, origin, etc!  (I walked away with two pieces that used different kinds of Japanese sugar as sweeteners … how awesome is that?!).  While you’re there, take a load off and choose from their assortment of interesting pastries (all with chocolate), and, more importantly, a hot chocolate flight:

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The one from Ghana was classic thick, rich, hot chocolate.  Smooth and effortless to drink.  Classic.  And then 15 gave some additional fruity/sour notes on the finish.  It was interesting, but not my fave.  And then 17 tasted like straight up whisky on the finish.  It was so weird.  I checked the description twice just to make sure it wasn’t spiked, and it wasn’t.  But it had that smokey, peaty flavor that reminded me of an American whisky.  Crazy!  Wish we had one of these in SF!

More to come – stay tuned!

Written by afterdinnersneeze

18 October 2017 at 8:44pm

Remainder of Kyoto

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t says:  Kyoto was a fun city to visit.  However, we do have to confess that two things make it significantly less fun: rain and tourists.  On our second day, we encountered both in large quantities.  It started with our determined efforts to see the vermillion gates at the Fushima Inari Shrine.  We started out early in the morning, thinking if we got there before breakfast, then no one else would be there yet … certainly not in the rain … we were wrong.

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We started off by ducking out of the rain into a little tea house.  Not quite knowing the protocol, we assumed we should remove our shoes to sit on the elevated tables with our legs folded.  Fortunately, when others arrived and did the same, our guess was confirmed.  Hooray!  The only thing we didn’t do was put the umbrellas into the umbrella stand at the entry of the shop – d’oh!

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This place specialized in rice-related confections to go along with the teas.  I went for this one, which essentially is a charred mochi (no filling), topped with sweet red beans.  It was superb.  I don’t know if most people will like it, but for me, I ate a lot of red bean sweets as a child (my parents lied to me and told me it was “chocolate”).  So for me, this is like childhood 2.0.  And the savory qualities of the grilled rice cake really balanced nicely against the sweetness of the bean.  Now, there were a LOT of places to eat around the shrine/gates.  There were vendors hawking every type of grillable food.  There was even an awesome fresh-made mochi place (I got the one filled with red bean – surprise!).  It really is a tourist’s wonderland – so go hungry and see what you find!

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For lunch, we went a bit rogue and sought out someplace away from the main flow of tourists.  Between google and some poorly translated websites, we decided to go to a ramen shop called Hiwamatanoboru Ramen.  We were greeted politely and pointed towards a machine to order.  This was a moment that g and I had feared: we had no idea how to use such machines.  Fortunately – we changed the language setting to English and bam! We could order without issue.  We placed our orders, gave them to the host who pointed at some seats for us, and waited patiently.

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This was one hearty bowl of ramen.  The noodles were thick and flecked with what appeared to be some kind of grain (?whole wheat ramen noodles?).  The meat was smoked (we think) as it had that kind of texture, appearance, chew, and flavor).  The base was simple – like a well-porked tonkatsu.  Definitely a steal for $7.50.  I was particularly pleased that we appeared to be the only tourists in the joint – a lot of folks came in, freely spoke in Japanese, and ate alone before leaving, so I [perhaps wrongly] assume they were locals.  A pretty good spot!

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And the shrine!!  So this is a shot from the outside of the row of gates – I took it because the gates were full of people, and this looked much more serene.  Some tourist photobombed me and I didn’t realize it ’til later (look closely in the center).  Oh well.

And there we go!  Our last half-day in Kyoto: good food and pretty sites!

OH – and there is one place that we did not take pictures: Tempura Matsu.  Our “splurge” meal for the trip, this “modern kaiseki” joint is run by father-and-dad team (although dad isn’t around much as he is older).  It combines some of the classics (tempura) with some new-fangled, including the dish for which they seem to be the most famous: udon served in an ice cube (google it).  We sat at the counter, and we have to say that it was a wonderful experience.  We watched as they prepped our food and served it to us, explaining the ingredients and how to eat everything.  From the first dish (corn soup served on a giant leaf that covered the grilled eel in the bowl underneath) all the way to that ice cube, it was great!  My favorite was a yellow-tail that they topped with some kind of roe+yuzu combo – delish!  g especially liked the toro-topped rice dish.  I’d say that the $100 and $150 would be worth it here – I’m not quite sure the $200 could be (although I’ll never know).  The staff is warm, and the mom is ever so proud of her son, who was featured in the Rice Noodle Fish soup and did stages all over the world.  Adorable!

 

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Written by afterdinnersneeze

18 October 2017 at 6:38pm

Journey to Naoshima and Kyoto

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t says: g told me there was an “art island” in Japan. Because we cancelled the Korea part of our trip, we needed to fill up those extra days, so we figured that this would be an excuse to get out of Tokyo. Naoshima is quite a journey. The Shinkansen to Okayama was a snap, but the two trains afterwards to get to Uno port was a bit more butt-clenching (Where are we? Where are we supposed to be? Quick – get on the train before it leaves! Why are we the only not-apparently-Asians on this train? What did that overhead speaker say? How many stops left? I’m hungry!). In hindsight it was stupid to be worried about it – it’s quite easy as the Japanese transportation system is mercilessly on time, so you know what’s going on just by looking at your watch and a timetable. And after the ferry from Uni port, we were rewarded with this:

On our first day we went to the Chichu museum. This is my new favorite museum ever. Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Guggenheim, MOMA’s, Barnes foundation – it doesn’t matter. This tiny museum, with its like 10 pieces gave me chills three times, not including the James Turell’s “Open Sky” at dusk program. It’s just the perfect place to go and be quiet and look at something that really begins to distort your perception. Like you may have seen some Monet Water Lilies, but when you see them here, I could have just sat on the floor and watched for hours. To promote the feeling of bending perception, I wish they would have added a strict “no talking” rule to the “no photographs” rule (which is why I have no photographs) – why it is there is always someone at every exhibit who feels the need to explain something to someone who didn’t actually ask for an explanation is beyond me.

We stayed at an AirBnB that included meals at 7070Uogashi. I’m not actually sure about the provenance of the fish it provided (I seem to doubt it was all locally caught, but I didn’t see an obvious grocer or market anywhere on the island!), but everything was quite tasty! The restaurant was quirky (small, old, hilarious covers of pop songs played overhead), but we wouldn’t change a thing.

I kept seeing advertisements for the super-rich Cremia custard. I swear it was so milky it had a cream cheese flavor. Ultimately not quite as sweet as I wanted, but a good experiment.

My last note about Naoshima, as a reminder to our future selves: stay at the Benesse House. Not to be all high maintenance about things (our AirBnB was fine, but it was pretty barebones), but the ease of getting around the island that comes with staying at Benesse House (i.e. the free Benesse House-only shuttle) allows you to cover more ground more effectively. I view it like this: if you’re now at a stage in your life where you’re paying extra $$ to fly nonstop rather than suffering through two layovers to save a hundred bucks, then the Benesse House splurge is worth it. Otherwise, stay in one of the hostels on the island and rent a bike and give yourself enough time to go between the different exhibits (we’d say two full days would be enough – the two half days we had made it hard to see everything we wanted ……. but we saw the Chichu museum, so I’m super happy!)

After Naoshima, we ferry-trained it to Kyoto. We’ve only been here a day, and, as usual, crappy weather continues to follow us around on vacation, so we limited ourselves to the bamboo forest and Nishiki market.

The bamboo forest really is a sight to behold. The stunning trees , so densely lacked, reminds me of standing in a forest of green, super-skinny redwoods. The rain kept some tourists away so we did get some good serene shots, but I instead wanted to show you this one where alluvasudden, a car comes driving down the trail, a bunch of kids hop out and the driver takes their picture right where we were standing. So I figured I’d take their picture too! Maybe one of these kids is famous or a government officials child or something.

On our way to Nishiki market, the map said there was an Ippudo. You’d never know it’s the same as the one in Berkeley by the setup – its rustic, with a large communal table and very few tourists. I ventured a spicy one that featured some minced pork, smoky-spicy flavors, and all the fixings. It was done nicely, but tasted similar to what I had at Berkeley minus the spice. g had the shiomaruwhich was quite good as well. Overal, pretty solid stuff that we’re happy to have eaten for early lunch at 11 ….

… because when w e we’re leaving at 11:30, a line had formed!! Yowzas! I guess we got lucky with our waitlessness!

With full bellies we were ready for Nishiki market, full of vendors selling their wares and foods of various levels of done-ness. Begin the photostorm!

That’s right – g got her Taiyaki. She’s one happy camper!

Really, the only let downs were the Aritsugu and Kikuichimonji knife stores – neither of which had the type of kitchen knife I wanted. I guess I’ll just have to stick with the one I currently have …

Written by afterdinnersneeze

16 October 2017 at 2:00am

adsz brunch rules apply … even in Tokyo

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t says: Those who know me know that I can be a little impatient at times. This leads me to be a bit more brusque than social convention dictates. It’s usually because I’m hungry. A long time ago, I decided I would never wait for brunch for more than 45 minutes. SF has broken me a few times (damn you Plow and your ricotta pancakes!), but for the most part, t doesn’t wait for brunch.

So now we’re in Tokyo. Food bloggers paradise. Just like everyone else who fancies themselves as enjoying the “finer” things in life, we made the trip out to Tsukiji market. Knowing that it’d be rainy, and reading that it wasn’t worth it, we skipped out on the tuna auction. Instead we wanted just to see some stalls hawking an assortment of items and eat some damn good sushi. Now of course, every “experienced traveler” who has the internet is going for the same two places: sushi dai and daiwa sushi … and it shows, with lines in excess of two hours. Well, g & t don’t play ‘dat. Using he power of the internet, we found the third string: Sushi Bun.

g and I must have spent a solid 60 seconds outside, not knowing if we were at the right place, why the door was closed, wondering if we should just barge in. I put on my best dumb American face and went for it. We were rewarded with two empty seats at the counter.

So it seems that we must have read the same blog posts and reviews that every other impatient American read, because while this place turned over four couples during our stay, we were all essentially the same: gore-tex shells (it was raining), waterproof hiking backpack (it was raining, and who knows what we’d want to buy!), terrible Japanese skills (except one guy from one couple who may have been Japanese), and general awkwardness interacting with staff.  That said, this place was legit.  You could order one of three sets of nigiri or sashimi, and that’s it. Piece of cake. They didn’t allow any photography, but let’s just say that the nigiri was spot-on, with large slabs of super-tasty fish.  We went for the pricier nigiri “set”, which included things like uni and shrimp, but it was still well less than $40 (4000 JPY) per person.  And we were full.  I had to help out g with her uni …  the service was prompt and pleasant (there was some miming involved – like where to put our coats/bags). And as we walked (Or maybe “rolled” given how full we were) around the market to aid our digestion afterwards, we couldn’t help but smirk at those in line at other places (all with shells and backpacks).  Was our sushi “as good” as theirs?  No idea.  We’ll never know.  But for quite possibly some of the best sushi we’ve ever had (certainly the best we’ve ever had at this price), we find it hard to believe there could be better.  (But reserve the right to retract that statement if we’re ever bored enough to wait in line).

We followed this up with some aggressive shopping in Ginza (it was too bleak to visit temples/gardens).  I’ll spare you the details except to say that g was very successful in her quests.

Oh – g helped me find some cookies at the mall. Isn’t she awesome? Had a double chocolate chip and a chocolate chip + ginger. Interesting how the dough isn’t as sweet as I’m used to, but the chocolate was super-delicious. It’s some British company (Ben’s?), so I’ll keep an eye out for other flavors.

So back to the real food:

We managed to lunch at Ginza Kigari.

Don’t be fooled by the “soba” sign – there’s some history/technicality about why this sign exists that I can’t recall – but it’s the place!  This joint is probably one of the five most-commonly blogged ramen shops in Tokyo.  After David Chang mentions it and they get a Bib Gourmand, you know they’ve gone Hollywood.  While a second shop was around the corner and supposedly has no wait, we decided that the half-hour wait for tori paitan ramen at the original location was worth it. They had their system down. Menus were distributed to you while you were in line, and a super cheery lady would come around and take orders. By the time you got in there, they were ready to start working on your bowl – no hesitation, no modification, just put on your bib and buckle up.

As expected, it was teeny tiny in there. We were surrounded by 6 other tourists and 2 presumably native Japanese men (so the ratio is getting better!). This, my first tori paitan in Japan, featured a super-rich chicken broth.  Imagine tonkotsu, but with chicken.  It had some slabs of chicken breast and a few garnishes, but I added some egg and nori to round things out.  I think the soup had an excellent base, and the noodles had a wonderful bite and that superb alkaline flavor (that often is missing from ramens I’ve had in Philly/SF), but  I do wish they would have stepped up their game with their included vegetables (squashes/potato) to lighten up the dish with some brightness. Overall, I can say it was quite delicious and worth the wait, while being happily different from the norm making the rounds in SF.

We did go to one food-related “store” in Ginza – the Kit Kat Chocolatory.  Tokyo being known for its interesting Kit Kat flavors, we found some interesting ones (butter, green tea, etc).  We also found this Gateau Mignon flavor, one which was exclusively released at the Ginza store.  This is the Bentley of kit-kats, hiding a layer of chocolate cake inside.

It was absolutely delicious …. maybe not $4 a piece delicious, but something I’ll only see here. g was perhaps less than impressed …

Finally, we finished off the day with a dirt-cheap meal of dumplings at Tenryu Gyoza.

After indulging in these hand-sized gyoza and some much-needed vegetables (we hadn’t encountered many yet!), we were satisfied enough to feel the strong, stiff kick of our circadian rhythms telling us to go to sleep. We retired to our swank-as-hell-thank-goodness-for-CC-points hotel and fell asleep with the Tokyo skyline in the distance. What will tomorrow bring?

Written by afterdinnersneeze

13 October 2017 at 10:38pm

Guess who’s back …

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t says: yes, it’s been a while, but we’re back. I have some excuses to explain absence, but none are at all that convincing. I was working on other hobbies. We are out less at new restaurants. I forgot the WordPress password. Ultimately it was just time and convenience. With the ubiquity of YouFace, InstaTwitter, and the like, I just couldn’t keep up with the dying art that is blogging …

But now I come crawling back to the good ‘ol adsz. Why now? Vacation!

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And so it begins.

Back in January, g and I churned the hell out of some credit cards and accumulated enough points to plan a wonderful vacation. Flights to Korea were cheap (they just impeached their president) so we thought: “family reunion in Seoul!”.

Of course the evolving geopolitical wildfire made us change our itinerary to Japan-only for the trip (which was the day before North Korea started lobbing missiles over northern Japan). Nevertheless, we are sticking with the plan. Tokyo here we come!

In the meantime, an update from my phone’s archives:

We went to Namu Stonepot and it was surprisingly great! Now g and I can be sticklers when it comes to Korean food, especially with current champion Jang su Jang only an hour away -so we went into this not expecting much. I was blown away with their [pseudo-]ramen noodles added to their kimchi stew which was superb. Not as developed as JSJ, but for something easily had within city limits and next to BiRite ice cream, this place was great! I was sweating like grandpa in no time! Keep in mind that there is often a line, which is partly due to the volume of it being a hip new place, but also because it’s clear that folks often have no idea what to expect so spend several minutes on ordering, as they pimp the order-taker on what every dish is. (For the record, g and I ordered in under 37 seconds – we knew what we they had, we knew what we wanted, and we ordered … like the professionals we are …). It’s definitely worth a try – a better experience than Namu Gaji for sure.  Some people might be distracted by other dishes, like the rice stone pot or the Korean tacos, and those are fine – but they suffer from the same problem that Namu Gaji suffered from: poor execution (trying to do too much fusion ultimately dilutes the homestyle warmth that Korean food brings).  So pop a zantac, stick with the kimchi stew, and add some noodles.

Written by afterdinnersneeze

11 October 2017 at 1:54pm