Thursday, March 22, 2012

Grilled (Tourist) Meat in Musashi-Koyama

17th August, 2010 - It was a hot, balmy Tokyo summer's night. And we had been enjoying our first afternoon in Tokyo, awaiting T-chan's brother (H-kun) to finish work and meet up with him at his home in Musashi-Koyama. The one thing you should know about work in Japan however, and especially in Tokyo, is that you shouldn't make too many plans regarding when people finish of an evening. As it turned out H-kun was stuck at work, and his fiance (S-chan) rushed in to help out. We met her at Musashi-Koyama Eki (train station), and quickly set out to grab some dinner. It was already well past 7pm, and we were getting hungry.... in Tokyo, things move at a fast pace and you do what you can when you can.

Now Musashi-Koyama's not necessarily a household name... but it's about 1.5 km from Meguro station on the Yamanote line (2 stops by the local Tokyu Meguro Line, and 3 mins). Not a bad place to live at all.

View Tokyo Map in a larger map

First night in, we thought we'd have something simple for dinner. Yakitori (grilled meat/chicken) is always a great way to start an evening. S-chan took us to a small place just around the corner. Very convenient. Whilst L-kun had met S-chan before, he was still being a little bit coy. Still... the way to any boys heart is through his stomach (and of course presents).

That yakitori-ya was nice decorated in a rustic theme. The one thing I like about Japanese interior design is when it turns towards more naturalistic materials and structures (as compared to the countless pre-fab and concrete designs that are also common). Of course, this is often used as facade only (hiding the fact that it's really cheaper building materials deep down that's holding the place up). I especially love the look of rough hewn wood... but I digress... 

I have to say that whilst the place had the ingredients of a normal yakitori-ya, it didn't take long to realise that this was perhaps a little more up-market than the normal place you'd find nestled in a busy Japanese street. And to be honest I normally think of yakitori as being a cheap meal (except in our home in Adelaide, where it's treated like haute cuisine and comes at a premium price... silly Australians). So with that in mind we got stuck into ordering...

We ended up buying lots of little dishes... below are just a small sample of them... yummy. I love yakitori (in all it's forms, flavours and associated dishes). Hmmm... I'm getting hungry again!...
Sarada pasta entree (served with the drinks)

Uzura-no-tamago (quail egg)

Asupara-bacon (Asparagus, bacon drenched in cheese)

Chicken yakitori with spring onion

(left) buta or pork, and (right) tsukune or chicken mince-balls

Needless to say that we ate dish after dish - and before long I had given up taking photos. Even though it was a stinking hot day, we certainly had our appetites! And as it was our treat, we could enjoy heartily. Of course, until it came to pay the bill. I did say it was a little upmarket didn't I... and the bill reflected that. Still, it may not have been cheap street yakitori, but  it was delicious nonetheless. It was fitting that we should have enjoyed grilled meat, after becoming grilled tourists for most of the afternoon. Kind of cannibalistic if you think about it.

After a lovely dinner we headed back to H-kun's mansion...ok strictly speaking it's a manshon... in Japan a manshon simply means an apartment. Sorry to disappoint. This should not to be confused with an 'apaato' (apartment) which is generally a more temporary construction, smaller building... I think... it's all too confusing really. I guess words sometimes just don't quite make the transition between languages.  Anyhow - it was nearing 9pm and the streets of Musashi-Koyama were amazingly quiet. To be honest, I had expected (given how central it was, and the fact it was in the middle of summer) for the streets to be alive with people. It seems that the heart-beat of Tokyo isn't too dissimilar to any other city when you get down to it. It also showed that you could find suburbia in even the biggest of megapolis.

It was a hot night that night, and our trip to Tokyo had only just begun... and finally by about 11pm H-kun arrived home after a typically long day at work. It was good to catch up with him, but we also knew that he'd be busy for most of our stay in Tokyo. Such is the curse of working in Japan.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Evening in Shibuya - Lit By People Power

17th August, 2010 - whilst the focus of Shibuya may well be Hachikō and the nearby massive intersection, you should be prepared to take a little bit of a stroll around (even if you've just got a short time in Tokyo), and enjoy the multitude of shops that surround the district. Now, I can't honestly say that I'm an expert at what to do in Shibuya... we spent only a few hours walking in and out of shops and grabbing a bite to eat. However here are a few of the things that you might want to try:

  1. Visit Hachikō / The Shibuya Crossing
  2. Centre Gai (see below)
  3. Shopping, shopping, shopping (credit cards may need resuscitation after visiting here)
  4. Music shopping at Tower Records and HMV are both great shops
  5. The TEPCO Museum used to be here - yes that TEPCO - but all of the museums have been closed since the March 11 earthquake.  They used to contain large models of nuclear power plants, and video docos about how safe they were. Closing them down was perhaps a wise move.
  6. Walk-through (or other) Dogenzaka... Love Hotel Hill... interesting adult-oriented entertainment just looking at the photos of the rooms. 
  7. The night-life... it's always moving here, and there's plenty of clubs and bars here
  8. And of course, Shibuya is a natural launch pad into Yoyogi Kouen and Harajuku!
Right across from Shibuya's famous crossing you'll find Center Gai, a great little street with an explosion of interesting little shops. And it's somewhat admiral to see the Japanese  having exactly that - fun - despite the incredibly stifling conditions... Though as the afternoon wore on, and the sun began to sink, there was at least some relief (small as it was) from the heat. But Tokyo is a city full of the heat of life, whatever the season.
Center Gai Entrance

Speaking of heat.... now a quick word on Love Hotels...  these establishments are found all over Japan, but the Dogenzaka (or Love Hotel Hill as it's otherwise known) is famous for them. The name Love Hotel was (according to Wikipedia at least) originated in 1962 in Osaka... from an establishment strangely enough named, "Hotel Love". However the concept has been in Japan for many centuries prior. For a generally conservative culture (no, Japan is not the sex-capital of the world that the internet makes out), Love Hotels form an important aspect of society where relationships are often hidden away (e.g. through lack of privacy or company rules), time-poor... or just, well, seedy. Generally the word Hotel on a gaudy street sign can be read 'Love Hotel'; especially if it resembles a renaissance villa - or a windowless bunker - more than it does a normal hotel).

Hotel Moti sits comfortably alongside Chiyoda Inari Shrine Image from Google StreetView
I'd definitely recommend a walk around Dogenzaka for the experience - or you could always try out some rooms... you'll find a short-term 'rest' (4 - 7,000 yen for 2-3 hours) about half the price of an all-night 'stay' (8 - 12,000 yen). Not that I'm an expert... at all! For the adventurous, these also make for very reasonable accommodation options for couples (obviously not families), being relatively cheap, well "featured" and often in convenient areas. Indeed the rooms are generally much more comfortable than their business hotel counterparts for the same price... and the in-room entertainment options tend to be a little more varied shall we say. The only problem is that they are not bookable, and you can only order a stay after say 10 - 11pm. Best suited if you're travelling light, or if you've stowed suitcases/bags in a locker... or if you just want a very different sort of accommodation story.

And, no, we did not visit any Love Hotels on this trip to Shibuya, but there was still plenty of other things to do.  Healthy activities... like walking...

The lonely salaryman, finished office-work for the day then has to start his other work... drinking and socialising in bars and clubs. Whether it's with the office workers (building team spirit) or it's entertaining clients. It's not all fun and games by any means (even when it appears to be fun and games), but instead can be just as demanding as their day jobs. However, this is a trend that is perhaps on the decline... with life outside work being considered less and less company time. At least that's the ideal.

Salarymen and visitors alike take temporary refuge in the many food establishments that you find in any busy district. As night approaches the sights, sounds and smells of Shibuya change to reflect a different Japan yet again. These are not normal places for a tourist to seek nourishment, though I'm sure if you're game you will find a rewarding experience.

As the sun goes down, the city slowly transitions to the more social hub that Shibuya also is. Even with Dogenzaka a drunken stroll away, it doesn't feel at all sleezy... not compared to say Kabukichō just off Shinjuku. Instead it feels like a comfortable place for young people to go out and have some fun.

There are times when you come across something that makes you do a double take... for example an "Outback Steakhouse" - playing on the Australian outback of course - right in the middle of Shibuya. I'm not entirely sure, but looking at the menu doesn't really lead me to believe that there's a whole heap of anything Australian about the restaurant other than some of the names of foods (such as Alice Springs Quesadilla's... huh? Since when were Mexican's in the outback???)

And speaking of Aussie influences, the photo below shows another characteristic influence of Australia that you see regularly. Of course, what I am talking about is the use of the kangaroo symbol on the Seino Unyu (forwarder) trucks. Not sure what kangaroos have to do with freight transport, but I'd kinda think anything that bounces around - or for that matter sleeps - as much as kangaroos wouldn't be the best symbol for a freight company. In Japan, these symbols make sense however. 

 Now I have to admit that Shibuya's not the place I'd ideally choose to explore with our 4 yo son in tow... there's a lot to do here, but not much which is designed for children that young. And during this trip, shopping was about as fun for him as a massive case of diarrhoea. T-chan did very well, especially in the Tokyo heat.... which I have to say only becomes marginally more bearable when the sun has set (during the height of summer). In fact, of all the places you might want to avoid in such weather, a busy shopping district overflowing with body-heat might be one such place.

Indeed, the people swarm into the district, like moths to the campfire. And I've always wondered how many of these people are Tokyoites as compared to visitors from elsewhere (including abroad). It is a nano-cosm within a microcosm within a sea of humanity. It may not be as bustling now as it once was, but it still remains a centre-piece in Tokyo's crown. 

Shibuya is a hub of modern Tokyo - it represents the excitement, the commercialism, and the youth of the modern megatropolis. In the Tokyo's stifling summer heat, it also represents the Japanese willingness to persist: to work and play.... and in some cases, to do both at the same time.  It's also a symbol of something very Japanese too... the attraction of the crowd... when many places across the world have sought to provide an open ambiance, Shibuya has become famous for just how crowded it can become.

It may not be the ideal place for a temporary stopover (with a 4 yo), but it's not that bad either. And yes, It is a typical neon paradise, like much of Tokyo. But it's powered by people - who give it energy, creativity, and passion. It's just a great place to get into the vibe of one of the worlds truly BIG cities.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sweaty Summer Shopping in Shibuya

17th August, 2010 - After a sweltering welcome to Tokyo, and an even hotter search for a spare locker at Meguro station, we finally found ourselves a great deal less encumbered, but nonetheless unsure of what to do. We knew we had to wait for H-kun, T-chan's brother to get away from work. But we also knew that in Tokyo, that could be just about any time. We had decided to head to Shibuya, just a couple of stops onwards from Meguro station on the famous Yamanote Line that is the main heart-beat of Tokyo's complex and yet highly efficient transport network. By the way, I've thrown together a bit of a graphic which shows the Yamanote Line with approximate timings... something that's difficult to find on the net... So the good news was that Shibuya was only 5 mins from Meguro station.... so it wasn't too far to go in the hot afternoon.

Yamanote Line Map - Numbers are mins between stations

Shibuya is one of the main districts in Tokyo, and definitely one of the major centres on the Yamanote Line. Anyhow, Shibuya's a bit of a strange amalgam of experiences... firstly, it's still a major business district, and that means salarymen. Lots of them. After about 2005, the government started promoting a energy-efficiency campaign known as "Cool Biz", which in part advocated workers to start to wear short-sleeved shirts so that the air-con could be set to a rather warmish 28 degrees. Hmm - nothing like working in a high-rise building with 1000's of hot, sweaty bodies and no opening windows.

[Note: Post 11-3-11, they introduced "Super Cool Biz" which sought to introduce even more energy conscious casual wear into corporate Japan]

Now way back in our first trip (in 2003) I wrote about the story of Hachikō, the famous story of the Akita dog that was so devoted to his master (whom he awaited everyday to return from work at Shibuya Station) that on his master death, he remained patiently waiting for his master to return. Of course he never would, but night after night, he would return to the station by himself to wait expectantly. For nine years he waited, until his own death in 1935. His story of single-minded loyalty remains an inspiration to the Japanese people. Hachikō is the story of resolute determination in a time of great national change and turmoil... such was the state of Japan in the 1930s. It is, in typical Japanese style of tale of stoic tragedy.
Statue of Hachikō
The statue of Hachikō remains a well-known meeting place outside Shibuya Station, and there's always a crowd of people waiting nearby. And crowds are something that Shibuya is quite famous for.

Indeed, Shibuya is known perhaps most of all as a young person's shopping district.... and there's a lot of shopping centres to visit (if you're so inclined). Just outside of Shibuya Station is one of the busiest and best known pedestrian crossings in the world, just next to statue of Hachikō. It's always a good spectacle to see the multiple avalanches of humanity colliding mid-street. Just down the road (on the left had side of the image below) you see see one of Shibuya's famous shopping buildings, Shibuya 109 ("Shibuya ichi maru kyu"). This is a must visit place for young fashionable people... however, according to my wife, we weren't quite young... or fashionable... enough. So we set our sights on more "age appropriate" shops.

And there's no mistaking that this is a young person's paradise... And there's certainly a wide range of fashions (good and bad) on display. Of course, the real fashion-centre is Harajuku, just up the road (or 2 mins by the Yamanote Line). 

Everyone has somewhere to go in the heart of Shibuya - and they follow that path with incredible determination. Shopping in Japan is like that. Of course, not everyone is shopping, with Shibuya being a place to go (like us) when you've got a spare afternoon. It is a melting pot of lives, criss-crossing in frenetic profusion. Converging momentarily in a nexus of common humanity - but no sooner has that happened and the crowd has moved on to be replaced by a completely new set of actors in this street-theatre.

Shibuya station is fairly large, and because there's many major roads intersecting around there, it can be a little disconcerting at first while you get your bearings. Always advisable to take a map of the area, and Google's StreetView is always an excellent way of familiarising yourself to the surroundings if in doubt. Of course, these days of the smart phone and/or tablet, you have a ready map at hand. And it's a good time to mention one thing that I hadn't actually realised before (being a bit of a noob).... if you travel to many parts of Japan you'll see two major department stores... Tokyu and Seibu (or stores owned by these companies). Both of these chains actually spawned from their respective private railway companies, and Shibuya was Ground Zero for their railway and shopping wars. It's interesting to see just how interconnected the Japanese economy is.
View Tokyo Map in a larger map

Now this was our first day in Tokyo (again) so we were only "window shopping"... plus we were already tired from the high humidity. However, T-chan shows great strength and determination when it comes to shopping. The only problem is that she's out-of-practice. L-kun is there to offer moral support (by which I mean, to be as generally distracting as possible). Some good stores include Gap, Forever 21 and H&M which have a great range at good prices, and aren't geared around annoyingly annoying Japanese kogals.

Whilst in Shibuya, you can also check out other famous Japanese stores like Tokyu (and of course Tokyu Hands), Seibu, Loft, Parco, Tower Records, Marui, or one of my favourites, Don Quijote. It may not be class, but it's always good to get a snapshot of what's happening in Japan... and another great place to pick-up some quintessential Japanese knick-knacks. And of course, you can always find a 100yen shop nearby, if you haven't experienced one before.

Of course, L-kun was also keen to have a look around... though I think he thought his rather wet hair was the result of rain. Hence the umbrella. No L-kun... that's the Sweaty Summer Shopping in Shibuya for you... it may not always be comfortable, but it's always an experience. The crowd just can't be wrong.

Stay tuned for the second Shibuya instalment...