Monday, December 8, 2014

Travel - Tokyo - Day 1 & 2

Having now visited Japan twice this year (in a 3 week period mind you), I’m amazed that I forgot how amazing the country was. Not sure how that was possible, but a 5 day trip in Tokyo, and a 4 day trip in Osaka, Kyoto and Koya-san have reinvigorated my love for this country, fiercely and passionately. 

I simple adore the culture, where people are polite and helpful to a fault (I’ve been told they bitch us about us behind our backs…but if I don’t know about it I honestly don’t care), where everything is engineered to minute detail and where it is almost impossible to get bad food. 

I’m not sure how I’m going to condense almost 10 days of travel in to a number of posts, but I’ll do what I can!

My first trip to Tokyo, the office flew via Jetstar direct to Tokyo, which is surprisingly comfortable and incredibly convenient. 

Our overnight flight gets us in very early in the morning, and once we’re through immigrations and customs, we refuel on hot Van Houtens chocolate and milk coffees from the vending machine in the train station. Honestly, I simply love how the hot drinks from the vending machines are actually hot…but not too hot, so that you can bring them to your lips straight away and not need them to cool down. 

Getting from the Narita airport into Tokyo is quite frankly a pain in the butt, both ways we explored getting to and from Narita involved a minimum of 1 and a half hours of travel at least. To get to our hotel in Shinjuku, we took the Narita Airport Express, all called ’N’EX’, who give a very nice discount to foreigners travelling from the airport into Tokyo. 

It was around an hour and half ride, perfect for napping. One hot tip, make sure you pre-order a wifi dongle (I’ve used both Global Advanced Communications and Pupuru now). It’s pretty affordable, around $55 for 5 days, and lets you connect up to 10 devices, with very decent battery life. It certainly makes the long train ride quite a bit more bearable should you not be able to sleep!

One of my colleagues comments that Tokyo isn’t as pretty as she expected it to be, as the rain gushes down and the city is cloaked in a cloud of grey, however I feel like there’s still so much personality to it, and despite the rain, can’t wait to get on my feet to explore it. 

We stay in Shinjuku Granbell Hotel, a relatively new hotel I found via, and I couldn’t be more pleased with it. I picked one of the smaller rooms, but despite it’s size, I love how well designed the compact space is to feel cozy yet relatively spacious and very functional as well. The modern details are also appreciated…along with the 6 vending machines in the lobby that have everything from soft drinks, to beer, to ice-cream. What more could you possibly ask for? 

The location was great as well, just a 5 minute walk away from one of the smaller metro stations, and a 10 to 15 minute walk away from Shinjuku station, a major hub. It may have been located in the red-light district, but we never really had any issues walking around at night, as there’s loads of food near by as well. 

After dropping our bags off we explored Harajuku, and the side streets off it with it’s eclectic mix of very upmarket boutiques, alongside too-cool-for-school street brands. My boss and one of my colleagues are very much into the sneaker culture, so we stalked down the Supreme store, as well as Opening Ceremony, before slipping into Cafe Luigi on a whim to fulfil caffeine requirements…and get out of the rain for a bit!

Cafe Luigi was adorable, with bric-a-brac and lots of warm woods; businessmen smoking at the back of the dark and dimly lit cafe, and a gentleman in a very dapper suit and hat idly reading out the front. You might think you’ve stepped into another era, until you see the barista with his painstakingly crafted haircut, nodding to more modern times. We were tickled to see coffee from Melbourne available at the cafe, and the office was unanimous in their appreciation for the coffee from Cafe Luigi. 

On Bernard (from Luxbite) suggestion, we also made our way to Number Sugar. This sweet little shop sells one thing only, caramels, but in different flavours, which are all wrapped in their sleek white paper wrappers by hand, which visitors can watch through a window in to the workshop. I bought boxes. This stuff is good. 

We recharged in the afternoon at Magnolia Cupcakes (funnily enough, in two visits to New York, I never made it to the Magnolia stores there!), where we fell in love with Japan’s love for all things halloween (how cute is the scared little ghost cupcake?!), realised the red velvet cheesecake was way better than the cupcakes and wen absolutely ape for the ‘Ice Box Cake’ that my boss Eleena picked up. It looks dense, but it’s simply like air, sweet and light air, a must try if you ask me!

Throughout my trip in Tokyo, despite the number of sweets I ate and encountered, it quite surprised me that none of them were every very sweet or sugary. Instead, a fine balance was maintained, to satiate the sweet tooth, but ensure that flavour was not neglected. 

To prove how densely packed Shinjuku was with food, we never left that part of town for dinner! By the time we had a full day out then wandered back to rest for an hour or so and freshen up…you really didn’t want to go very far after that!

The first night, the 8 of us stumbled around the red light district, the neon lights blinking fiercely behind the trickling rain. Finding dinner for 8 can be tricky, and we walked by many spots, not feeling it was quite right for us that night.

Suddenly, Eleena ducks down a laneway, only to find a Chinese restaurant, which is not quite what we’re after, but on the other side, we’re faced with a very, very quaint looking spot, with a wooden facade and hearty looking pictures of food.

As we poke our head in and around, we’re asked if we like good sake and told that if we want very good sake and food that we simply must come in.

Now I know mum tells us not to trust strangers…but in Japan, it’s actually really okay.

Heart Beat: Drink and Food, is an intimate space, feeling a little like a well stocked cabin out in the woods, with two booth tables, which the 8 of us occupy fully, and a small row of seats at a low bar, where our invitee is happily finishing his meal.

Quickly, we befriend Ichirou, who’s been a regular at Heart Beat for 5 years, who introduces us to Maezo-san, the owner and also sake sommelier, and Nakanishi-san, the chef, who originally came from a very traditional Japanese restaurant. Ichirou is generous with his knowledge, helping us translate, as Maezo-san’s English was a little bit lacking and my broken Japanese was not enough to make up for it, and also making recommendations as to what we should eat. 

True to his title of sake sommelier, Maezo-san ensures we always had a full flask, and we sample all four on his English menu, which vary greatly from bone dry to light and sweet, a fantastic education in the flexibility of sake and the variety as well. 

It’s also dangerously easy to drink.

Food flies out of the kitchen, from steaming hot bowls of oden, with an intensely aromatic broth, sweet and delightful sashimi (I fall in love with the mackerel many times over again) to perfectly seasoned chicken. 

Fried balls of cheese are much smaller than I expect, but not lacking in elastictiy and flavour, with a delightful crisp exterior, and agedashi tofu is light and delicate, with just enough batter, and just enough salt. 

The tempura squid is not quite what we expect, but turns into something I always want from now on. Shredded strips of squid, lightly, lightly battered and fried in obviously fresh oil. They’re absolutely golden, and deliciously crunchy, with simply the most moreish seasoning on the top. 

Maezo-San brings out some pickled vegetables as a treat for us, and a lovely little palate cleanser, before absolutely destroying us with the miso cod. 

Now, I’ve had the miso cod at Nobu before, and paid an arm and a leg for it, but my goodness. This floored me with it’s aroma and absolutely intensely rich miso umami flavour. I believe Nakanishi-san marinates it for at least a day, if not two, and it certainly shows. Why didn’t we order more?!

Although close to bursting, I had to request a Japanese curry. I mean, when it’s raining outside, that’s all you want isn’t it? Nakanishi did not disappoint, with a lovely rich gravy accompanied with every so fluffy white rice. 

Now. With all this food, you have to wonder where the kitchen is in this little eatery don’t you?

We were amazed to discover it was in fact behind the bar, which descends slightly, but also just how small it was! Where on earth does the food all come out from?! 

What also amazed us? That dinner only cost us a little over $30 a head. If I could eat this well for $30 in Melbourne on a regular basis…I would be only so, so happy. 

One thing I have to say that Japan doesn’t do so well (or maybe it does and I just haven’t found it yet…) is breakfast. Many businesses only really start opening from 10 or 11am, but at 8am in the morning? I’m really not sure where to go.

…except the convenience store that is. 

Bizarre, but the convenience stores in Japan are simply the best. I can spend ages in one, just looking at what confectionary is stocked, or how many beers they stock. You can almost literally get just about anything in a convenience store in Japan (including iPhone lightning cables!).

Convenience stores became my daily breakfast routine, where I would pick up a boiled egg, for less than a dollar, and an onigiri, which are roughly around one dollar, and if I was particularly peckish, a banana as well. Winner winner.

On our second day, we woke up early to make our way out to Ghibli Studio Museum. It’s a little bit of a trek, but not by much, involving a 20 minute train ride, followed by a 5 minute bus ride, or if you’re like us, a 20 minute walk in the rain…with our matching umbrellas from Opening Ceremony. 

We’re totally cool. 

The Ghibli Museum is amazing. If you plan to go, you must make sure you book tickets in advance (the website has all the agents you need to contact), as they only issue a limited number of tickets for each day and I’m not sure how you would go about buying tickets if you were already in Japan, as you certainly can’t at the museum itself!

Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside, but if you’re a Ghibli fan, or even just a fan of animation, there are some really great displays and I left quite inspired…and with a strong desire to re-watch all of the movies!

For lunch, we wandered back towards Kikochouji Station, and found a random yakitori spot, where the waiters were a little grumpy, but the smells from the grill were just too tempting. 

We feasted on delectable chunks of tuna and pickled octopus and mackerel, which were slightly vinegary and tangy, the perfect complement to the natural sweet flavours of the seafood. 

Hot bowls of soup and vegetables were devoured, along with multiple skewers of meat. I took delight in grossing everyone out with my adoration for offal…

The sashimi was a bit disappointing, as it was still partially frozen when we got it, but I suppose we were eating at a yakitori restaurant, so I suppose we were just asking for it…

Before heading back to our hotel to rest up before dinner, we swung by the Cat Cafe Calico in Shinjuku. Right by Shinjuku station, the small entrance is easy to miss, as the sign is amongst many others along the main street. But once you do find it, you make your way up to level 6, receive some instructions on how to treat the cats, get your pass which has your entry time (which is how they figure how much to charge you later; it’s by the hour), and in you go for some cat loving.

Whilst there were an abundance of cats, I found that they were pretty aloof, compared the cats at the cat cafe I had gone to in Bangkok, who were only happy to be patted by you. At Cat Cafe Calico, we were (discreetly) chasing them around, seeing who we could get our hands on.

But even if we couldn’t, it’s a very relaxing environment to be in…my boss promptly passing out for half an hour on one of the seats. 

I forget where we ended up for dinner that night, but they did sushi, and it was a big restaurant, and I was finally, finally, reunited with what I think I can safely say is actually one of my favourite foods. 

Anago. Conger eel. 

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I love how it’s just lazily draped over the rather minute serving of rice in comparison, it’s tender and sweet meat, complemented by the slightly thick and dark soy sauce. I simply cannot express how diving the flesh is, and how much I lament that it’s just near impossible to get in Melbourne. Sigh.

We also have another serve of miso cod, which is just as tasty as the night before, and I tuck into a mini army of sea urchin, or uni, sushi, loaded up with the sweet and delicate orange meat. 

So much food, yet it was only two days into a five day trip in Tokyo…coming soon, lunch on top of the Chanel building in Ginza and a pancake sandwich…

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