Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cultural Tokyo

We have been blessed with fantastic sunny weather our first few days in Tokyo.  So it kind of seemed fitting that the day we decided to go to Tokyo's famous Meiji Shrine it rain the whole day.  So much rain that we had to buy an umbrella, and again the experienced showed us the genuine kindness of the people in Tokyo.  We picked up a $3 umbrella at the all convenient 7-11 and while we were putting our money away and getting situated for the downpour happening outside, the clerk had taken the umbrella out of it's plastic wrapping, cut away the tags and faced the handle towards us on the counter.  Considerate, kind and thoughtful.  Another observation we simply love about Tokyo is whenever we walk into an establishment, be it a restaurant, convenient store or even cutting through a shop to bypass all the pedestrians, the people in these establishments always welcome you with a greeting and when you leave you are always thanked. It is very impressive.
The Meiji Shrine is in the Harajuku area of Tokyo.  Harajuku is famous for all the street fashions and the strutting that occurs - books and songs have been dedicated to this outrageous scene, but it was too wet and cold to go Harajuku girl hunting so we headed straight to the shrine.   
The rain matched the somber and serene atmosphere of the shrine and the extensive grounds dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shokan.  Even though the shrine is in the middle of Tokyo and next to the busy shopping area of Harajuku, city noise was drowned out by the sound of people walking along the the gravel walkway that lead up to the main area.  Very calming.    
Upon entering the main courtyard we were greeted with a cleansing house.  Not sure why we should cleanse our hands before entering, but when in Meiji.... 
Once we were inside the main gates the enormity of the buildings humbled us immediately. 
Visitors to the shrine were also encouraged to write a prayer to the deities about their feelings of gratitude and appreciation, which would then hang up on a display shrine.  
Offerings to the shrine was scattered throughout the courtyards making it look somewhat like a big farmers market with all the local fruits and vegetables in beautiful and elaborate displays.
We were lucky enough to witness a wedding procession and monks walking the grounds.
The rain started to come down and it was getting dark so we started to exit the shrine along with everyone else.After exiting the shrine we wanted to walk around the shopping area of Harajuku. The area is known for the fashion stores and the storefronts tucked into the alleyways were really inviting, but we were wet and cold and all we wanted was some sake to warm us up. And we found it in an Izakaya (Japanese pub) tucked at the end of an alley that was lined with French Connection, Anna Sui, Betsy Johnson, Comme De Garcon, Mont Blanc and Club Monaco. The Izakaya even had a little umbrella lock-up, something we didn't notice before today's rain, but now could be found in front of every storefront, again a testament to the Japanese sense of having things ready when you need them and tucking them away when you don't.Izakayas are similar to English pubs, with little rooms tucked away for a cozy atmosphere to be with friends and drink. They usually have a large variety of good quality food for fairly cheap. You can always tell Izakayas by the large sake bottles lining the walls or tables. Local patrons usually buy a large bottle of sake, put their names on them and return to drink with friends until the bottle is gone.We sat down and was handed a menu all in Japanese and when the waitress realized we had no idea what it read she handed us a handwritten menu in english.  The descriptions were hilarious - noodle soup topped with foodstuff.  English is readily available all over Tokyo, the subway signs and maps are in english and all the restaurants we have been to had english on the menu or an separate english menu.  Tokyo is great that way.  We selected a set meal consisting of noodles and tempura, mainly from the pictures and descriptions. Again all arriving on a tray in beautiful ceramic tableware.The udon noodle soup was light and simple, topped only with a vegetable patty and two snow peas - perfect after the rain soaked afternoon.The tempura plate consisted of asparagus, eggplant, red pepper, taro, mushrooms, and our favorite, chrysanthemum leaves (light and delicately crispy).But our favorite of the whole lunch set was a stew similar to beef stew. The stewed chunks of taro, parsnips and carrots soaked up the beef broth which was peppery and simply delicious on a cold wet day like today - score!
Here's to Izakayas - may many more lie in our future here in Japan! Kampai!

Friday, November 28, 2008

7-11 Props

The first time I visited Tokyo I fell in love with the convenient stores dotted on every street. Just like the vending machines found everywhere in Japan, they are convenient and located on every corner practically. Due to the lifestyle of Tokyoites, convenient stores have become central locations to conduct all manners of business.  You can have packages delivered there, since people are rarely in their homes (proof by the number of people constantly on the street heading somewhere), you can buy anything, you can do your banking and things you didn't think you needed seem to always popped up when you need it the most.  Every imaginable convenient store in the US can be found here - 7-11, Am Pm, Circle-K, Lawsons, Family Mart and even simply Mini Mart.  
Here is our local 7-11 at the end of the alleyway behind our hotel.
Here are a few items you can find at the 7-11. Remember this a convenient store the same size you can find back in the states, but the sheer variety of items you can find is astounding!
I could wander for hours just looking at all the different products they sell.
But the one item I was looking most forward to getting was a pizza hum bao!  Who can resist a warm-tangy-tart dough ball?

Subway Runner

After spending the day hunting for electronics.  We decided to head out to the Shinjuku area and experience the multi-level malls that can be found in the famous Shinjuku subway station.  The underground malls are definitely something to been seen.  Underground level after level of the best shopping and food courts beyond anything you see anywhere else in the world.  
Background: Japan has the second largest economy in the world - think for a second, a nation tiny compared to the United States and is only second in GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  More than any European country, making Japan much more modern and advanced than anywhere else in the world due to its density.  The most populated city in the US is New York with a mere 8 million people. Compare that to the 19 million people living in Tokyo and nearly 30 million including the outlining areas.  Plus New York is much more spread out in area than Tokyo - crazy!  Now do you see how awe-inspiring to think how clean this city is with that many people. Another bit of interesting information is how safe and nice the people are here.  You can seriously leave your bag on a table in a busy mall, go back and your bag will still be there - a testament to the kind-nature of the people as a whole, but we'll talk about that later.  
Now back to Shinjuku station.  It actually is a blessing in disguise that our packs are so heavy and the mere thought of buying even a t-shirt puts us off from buying anything.  So the only thing really to buy is food - fine by us.  We headed out looking for conveyor belt sushi.
We found a small, but busy revolving sushi place just up the street from the station and quickly planted ourselves down and starting pulling plates of the rotating belt.
Mike was immediately happy.
We quickly spotted a couple of our favorites and immediately realized we are in the homeland of sushi. Fresh, not a fishy smell or taste anywhere, Texture that melts - ex that - disintegrates the minute it touches your tongue.
But the one item that made the hair literally stand up on the back of our necks was the ikura (salmon roe).  Ikura is specially marinated to bring out the delicate texture and flavor.  And this Ikura was by far the best we have ever had - so delicious we wanted to eat each roe individually to savor the taste as it literally melted upon impact to our tongues.
We were literally on a food high as we meandered our way back to the Shinjuku subway station, suddenly realizing it was almost midnight and the subways were about to stop running. We knew we should get going when we could hear the clapping of stiletto heals against the concrete and tile floors of the station (more on shoe fashion later ladies).  
We thought we knew exactly where we were heading when suddenly the platforms were all wrong and we got turned around, really turned around. We asked a station conductor and he said the last subway to Jimbocho station was in 22 minutes but we were on the wrong level. Wrong level? What? You see you have to pay to get into the platform area and out, so we quickly swapped out our tickets and got another.  Then realized again we were on the wrong platform and had to swap out our tickets again and head to yet another floor.  Then station area we were in was wrong and we needed to be on the other side of the station. All this while still trying to read the subway ticket machine and make sure we got the right ticket so you don't pay more than you need to when you exit the station. 
Shinjuku station is the busiest/largest station in Tokyo, serving an average of 3.5 million people a day and it is just one station.  As each conductor told us we were on the wrong floor or wrong platform the clock was ticking away and soon we found ourselves running through a catacomb of confusing underground walkways dotted with shops and malls.  As we later read in Lonely Planet "Getting from A to B within the station can be a kin to negotiating the levels of a chaotic video game you've never played before".
If it weren't for our new kicks we surely would have missed the last train and a taxi ride home would have cost anywhere from $50 to $75 a huge chunk out of our dining budget - no way!  So thank you subway runners - we were sweating, but we made it.
One of the thoughts that kept us from not missing the last train was the window bar we had set up in the room  - a nice celebratory cocktail was all we were looking forward to after that crazy labyrinth.  

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bubbles Birthday Burger

In honor of our friend Bubbles (Albert's) birthday, we tried to seek out a Mos Burger joint, Japan's premier burger franchise, but were unsuccessful.  However, we did find a Lotteria, another Japanese-based burger franchise, and after seeing the sign out front we decided we had to toast to Bubble's Birthday, burger-style.
Happy Birthday Bubbles! 
We also tried Lotteria's Nuggets with Dip - pretty good.  They even had BBQ sauce as the dip.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Geek Love

Imagine a whole neighborhood full of buttons, nobs, switches, beeps and blinking lights.
Gear Heaven
 Akihabara- Tokyo's Electric Town.
A whole district dedicated to all things electronic.  Department store after department store, each with multiple floors dedicated to anything you plug in and get off on.  We spent the first part of our Sunday morning in the Akihabara area of Tokyo, otherwise known as Electric Town. This area has streets and streets of little and big stores selling anything to do with electronic equipment.  The shops are open arcades that you can just wander in to and get lost on any of their multiple floors.  Storefront hawkers on PA systems bait shoppers into their stores while the sounds of electronics being tested bleep, blong, bling in the background - kind of like you are in a video poker machine.  
We read this area is slowly transforming from electronics to manga (comics) and video games (there is a SEGA mega store that was 7 stories high) and the electronics are moving to other parts of Tokyo, but we were able to find everything we were looking for.  We were hoping to find extra batteries for the camera and maybe an MP3 player since our plan to use our phones as music players fizzled before it began.  
First we wanted to check things out and found the house appliances to be fascinating.  How compact and efficient the Japanese make their appliances to fit into small spaces and have multiple uses was so clever.  Most appliances were not large items that needed to be installed, but small, compact and could be moved and placed out of sight, like the table top dishwater.
We also wanted to find cases for our cameras to protect them from the rain that was suppose to be coming tomorrow.  We knew the selection of camera cases would be much more abundant than what we could find in the states and we were not disappointed. Every size, brand and style was available on racks and racks.
We quickly eyed a MAC store selling mainly used and refurbished gear - fantastic!  After successfully finding what we were looking for, including new (used) MP3 players for a steal, we started to look for some lunch.
Another vending machine shop to the rescue.  This time it was tempura and odon noodles.
The restaurant was larger and more modern the one close to our hotel, being in Electric Town and all.
Same procedure as we experienced previously with the ramen shop and before we had time to to discuss our new purchases, our food arrived.  
We love how regardless of the type of restaurant all your food is always presented in beautiful ceramics. Beautiful presentation for a lovely little lunch.  The tempura shrimp, asparagus, eggplant and mushroom was sprinkled with a sweet soy that was also sprinkled on the rice below - absolutely tasty.  
The odon was in a simple dashi (Japanese stock) and sprinkled with green onions.  The simple flavors of the odon and dashi went well with the sweet crispy tempura.
It was getting dark and we headed back to the hotel.  As we were coming out of the subway station there was a little stall where people coming out of the subway station were stopping at, handing the adorable little man a 100Yen coin, quickly getting their snack and moving on. We were intrigued by the sweet smell of corn coming from the stall and quickly asked what they were - corn cakes with sweet custard or bean on the inside.  Yes, one sweet custard please.
The warm bag smelled so good and we wanted to tear into the bag on the remaining subway ride home, but we knew Japanese etiquette frowned upon eating in public.  Side note: Japanese custom think poorly of eating and walking in public, in fact when you buy something from the ubiquitous vending machines found EVERYWHERE (more about that later) you are suppose to stand in front of the machine and drink your beverage, recycle it in the bin in front of the machine and move on.  One morning we grabbed tea from our hotel in a to go cup and headed to the subway which was packed at 7am with commuters on their way to work.  We were THE ONLY people with a beverage in hand, which is shocking considering the number of Starbucks everywhere (the largest Starbucks in the world is in Tokyo - 7 stories high!).  This would also explain why we could not find a garbage can anywhere and eventually threw out our empty cups in a trash heap out on the sidewalk ready for collection.  This would also explain why Tokyo is the cleanest city we have been to, well besides Singapore (but you are HEAVILY fined for tossing garbage, chewing gum and drinking in public).  Anyways back to those corn custard cakes.
The cakes were grilled in a large cast iron mold which made the outside crispy on all sides and the dough crunchy with the custard gooey and sweet, but not mushy inside the cake. De-lish!