Thursday, 26 April 2012

Japan - Kyoto, Nagoya and country

As much as I loved Tokyo, I was excited to get onto the bullet train and see some more of Japan and of course, some regional dishes.

This shrine in Kyoto was fantastic. It’s dedicated to the old God of rice, Inari (also the train station) and even today businessmen donate to pray for success, rice being symbolic with affluence and plenty. We visited in the pouring rain and it was deserted, and rather spooky - all the ishidoro stone lanterns reminded me of the Zelda graveyards!

Kyoto station is a beast of a complex, as most big Japanese stations are, filled with department stores, malls and more people than you’ve ever seen. Upstairs we were spoilt for choice with ramen places:

We had a shabu shabu session at a traditional place in Gion, the old town of Kyoto where you’re most likely to spot geisha. We did indeed see a few, which was amazing. Other people were shamelessly papping them, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to.

The shabu shabu was good, but I prefer the hot plate sukiyaki to the blanched (read: boiled) meat. And it may be unpopular to say, but I found tatami mat dining literally a pain in the backside, not comfortable at all!

green tea (what else!) mousse for dessert

After a morning’s temple bashing, we stumbled across a brilliant little place for lunch. Cosy, authentic and with no staff under 60, we had some perfect chicken udon and chicken egg rice. In some ways, this was one of my favourite meals; cheap, quick and simple. I don’t think it had a western name, it was down a side street just past the Nazenji temple, towards the City.

One night we were being indecisive, walking around the back streets around Shijo and Teramachi streets (bear with Kyoto’s centre, it appears terrible but has some gems) – and stumbled across a tapas place. Hankering for some Western veg (and cheese, if I’m honest!) we gave it a whirl.

It was actually quite good – authentic in appearance and a very friendly owner who makes regular trips to Spain for cookery classes, supply, restaurant know-how and so on. It was on Sanjo-dori near the Post Office, can’t find it online - definitely worth a trip if you fancy a break:

On the same street was Café Independants – quite a funky basement bar with great pints and a record shop too. This picture makes it look quite tragic, bit about 10 minutes later it was rammed. Smoky though:

Bamboo Café near the (incredible) Ryuji Temple was another simple udon stop off:

Onto Nagoya, Japan’s third biggest hitter. This is a rich town, being home to Japan’s car industry, and the proliferation of Louis Vuitton, Dior etc and Fauchon, Fortnum & Mason and Dean & Deluca cafés right outside the massice station supported this.

I was on a quest to have red miso katsu, a local delicacy. We tracked it down in Yabaton, in La Chic, a great mall in Sakae. One thing I like about Japan, and Asia in general is the lack of shame or stigma attached to eating in shopping malls and food courts. Maybe because they're half decent.

It was delicious – not massively healthy but very satisfying. Nagoya’s tikka masala if you will. We had ‘half and half’, with that tangy ‘Worcester sauce’ you find in Japan with non-curry katsu generally:

We went to a cool bar called Waltz in the Sakae area too.

Even in Japan there is plenty of junk. Here, the beef curry pastry had more in common with Greggs than anything else, but fine for the train and you can justify eating rubbish if it’s local:

We stayed at a great ryokan in Hakone. Own hot spring bath, kaiseki meal, futons – it was a great experience. Bring some entertainment though, if you can’t get to sleep at about 9pm when it all winds down.

The food was a great thing to have done. The courses were numerous – cold fish and veg starters, some fried and grilled fish dishes, a little bit of pork and lots of stuff which I had no idea about. Not all of was nice, but that was part of the fun:

A note on Hakone itself and the pirate ship/cable car circuit. If it’s cloudy and Fuji-san is hiding, don’t bother. It’s quite dull frankly. Go for a walk or hit the onsen.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Japan - Tokyo

So much to say about Japan. Fantastic trip. But others far more eloquent and articulate have written much on Japan's culture to the outsider, so I'll say few words on that and concentrate on my highlights and pictures.

But briefly, I found the people disarmingly humble, kind and helpful at every turn, and the service levels and attention to detail are astonishing. The professionalism, from the teenager in 7-11 upwards, is enviable. It makes you realise how shoddy the UK can be sometimes. The transport system is fantastic too.

That there is no tipping in restaurants or commission in shops does cast some perspective upon America's better service reputation also. It isn't better there, it's just incentivised. Japanese people seem to have a pride and respect for their work which is much deeper ingrained.

Muji was certainly a lot more Japanese too:

And so, on to the foodie stuff. Tokyo is such a global city that French and Italian food, not to mention Americana, is everywhere. However most visitors haven't come for the burgers (but more on that another time) and the great thing about Japan is that it's very difficult to eat badly. The food halls of department stores are fantastic insights into the breadth of Japanese food, and good fun. Great for grabbing something cheap for a picnic or train.

To start with, some unidentifiable but fun airline food. If you ever get the opportunity to fly ANA, take it:

Our first night, we ventured into a place in Shibuya which did a sort of shabu shabu, but with chicken hearts, livers and meatballs rather than nice, marbled beef. The ritualism of it all was quite fun though, and the virtuous veggies made us feel a bit better about all the beer:

Hanabi in Nakameguro alongside the river was a cute little spot for lunch, filled with trendies taking a break from the amazing cherry blossom viewing. My kara age was delicious:

Yakitori places are everywhere in Tokyo. You're not really encouraged to linger long, but fill up on chicken skewers, beer and then vacate your seat.

Of course, some of the yakitori spots run a little more adventurous than chicken skewers, such as this one in Shinjuku specialising in parts of the pig:

"Yes I'd rather the lower grade uterus, please..."

The Piglet is obsessed with all things Monocle, and so a trip to their cafe in the Hankyu Men's department store was a mandatory pilgrimage. It's a pleasant enough space, but is lacking that charm and special touch of Omotesando Koffee, whose founder designed it (more on coffee in Japan in another post). The Monocle curry was very tasty though:


So I came to Japan to eat lots of Japanese food, but I like a good Western breakfast. This eggs benedict from Glorious Chain Cafe, a pretty cool establishment run by Diesel, was spot on: 

Maisen in Omotesando came highly recommended as the place for Tokyo's best katsu. As some will know, katsu is one of my favourite Japanese dishes so I was very excited about this one, and not disappointed.

We sat at the bar, which ironically is quite a hushed and formal affair. Maisen take their craft very seriously, and views into the kitchen saw an incredible clean, quiet and serene operation producing quite easily the best katsu cutlets I've ever tasted. The crumbing is so light and gentle, you feel boorish for not eating it with the delicacy of a Victorian high tea.

It's not cheap compared to its peers, but I couldn't recommend it more.

The Japanese are very in tune with their seasons for such an urbanised nation, and having tried to navigate Tokyo's size and labyrinthine streets, I can appreciate their appreciation and willingness to connect to open space, the countryside and the changing of seasons.

I suppose it's a similar thing to the notion and affinity to the England of green, rolling hills, despite an urban dwelling population of 90%. With farmers' markets, better restaurants and food supplements, I think we're getting better at seasonality, but there is still a way to go.

seasonal ice creams

If you're going to Japan, you'd better like beer. Wine is available of course, but unless you fancy paying £30 for a bottle of Jacob's Creek, you should wait for the flight home. Despite some great Japanese beers, the grass is always ever greener and so the craft beer phenomenon made a big impact here. Combined with a love for most things Hawaiian, you'll see a lot by the Kona Brewing Company:

Street food in Japan isn't quite as rowdy and fun as Southeast Asia, possibly as the weather is so changeable. But it's certainly much tidier and better organised - here's some more kara age I bought for a couple of quid to nibble on:

We were curious about Baja, a tiny little Mexican place cum dive bar, just off the Meguro river. Burritos and nachos were great and reasonably priced. No pics of the food I'm afraid, but worth a visit if you fancy something a little different for Tokyo:

The Japanese do love their French and Italian food, which we dutifully avoided until we passed Figaro, a little French spot in Aoyama and nipped in for a cheeky croque monsieur in between meals:

Berry Cafe was a fantastic example of Japanese perfectionism and obsession - the cakes in the place were an absolute work of art - I particularly liked the plum one at the bottom:

Gyoza are another Japanese foodstuff I love. They're sold in most izakayas, which are Japanese pubs ostensibly, doing a pretty borad range of food. But I picked these up in the basement of Tokyu in Shibuya, and they were delicious:

And finally, some more of my ANA food, this time from the flight home. The presentation is fantastic as always:

These are just some highlights from our days in Tokyo. I tried to eat as much Japanese food, but was also very curious about their takes on Western and other Asian food too. So it's all quite mixed.

I'll be writing some other posts about our time outside of Tokyo (including udon otaku and kaiseki dining) as well as posts on the coffee and burger scenes I came across.

Two things which were a challenge - firstly the address system is confusing at first as hardly any streets have names, it's all numbered blocks. So print or screen grab lots of maps. And secondly, people smoke everywhere. Many places have non-smoking areas but some bars we could barely finish our drinks in. Also, watch out for sneaky table charges in bars!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Off to Japan

I'm off for 2.5 weeks to Japan, very excited as it's my first visit. Lots of foodie and general craziness potential, as well as a little bit of calm hopefully.

Lots of pics, Pinterest and posts to follow, but some radio silence before then...