Outside the Green Bubble

Shinjuku

The Chuō Line, or central line, cuts through the circular Yamanote Line from Tokyo to Shinjuku, and continues west to the nearby mountains, with some trains even going on as far as Nagoya.  The first few stops, from Nakano to Kichijōji, top many Tokyoites’ list of most desired places to live, and are spaced about a 15-minute walk apart.

Only 4 minutes from Shinjuku on the rapid trains, Nakano can make you feel nostalgic for a time you may or may not have been a part of. Just north of the station is Sun Mall, a covered shopping arcade leading to one of Nakano’s most unique destinations: Nakano Broadway.

Nakano Broadway

If you walk through the first floor, you’ll find yourself back outside wondering what all the fuss is about. The second floor and up are an otaku’s paradise, and certainly worth a visit even if you aren’t a manga or anime fanatic. Mandarake, a world-famous vendor of rare memorabilia, has its headquarters here; with about a dozen different stores spread over three floors.

Nakano Broadway 2

Nakano Broadway 3

Nakano Broadway 4

Nakano Broadway 5

There is an eclectic assortment of other shops as well; such as a chic art café, a small gallery selling large prints of celebrated contemporary artwork, a maid café, a massage parlor, used camera and video shops, and a few army surplus-themed tactical gear and airsoft stores, such as Warriors, which has some pretty serious-looking equipment.

Nakano Broadway 6

Nakano Broadway 7

Nakano Broadway 8

Just a short walk north of Nakano Broadway, is the quiet neighborhood of Arai, where you can find a charming little restaurant called ChoiChoi (焼や ちょいちょい〒165-0026東京都中野区新井1-31-9).

ChoiChoi

They serve many unique and delicious vegetable dishes and have a selection of savory grilled fish. It’s tight seating on the first floor, but if you don’t mind, you can sit at the bar and watch the master at work in front of you. Up a steep set of stairs, there are more seating options with a cozy atmosphere and a ladder leading up to the living quarters.

ChoiChoi 2

You have a choice between an old-fashioned bulb horn and a dinner bell to signal for attention on the second floor, of course the classic “sumimase~n” works as well, but just knowing these options exist adds a curious quality to the meal.

ChoiChoi 3

If you prefer a more lively scene, the alleyways of Sanbangai (三番街), adjacent to Sun Mall, are packed with bars and restaurants, each with their own style.

Sanbangai

If you like unagi, or grilled eel, Miharu (味治) has been around for a while and featured in “Oishinbo”, a long-running manga about culinary adventures.

Miharu

One stop west of Nakano is Kōenji, a hip and trendy neighborhood known for its used clothing stores and live music scene. Central Road, just to the north and west of the tracks, has an abundance of izakaya, or Japanese-style pubs. Although it’s a chain, I liked the friendly staff, offerings, and décor of Himonoya (ひもの屋). If you walk under the tracks from the entrance of Central Road, you’ll find Look Street (ルック商店街), which is a good place to find inexpensive threads.

Koenji

Covered shopping arcades, or shōtengai, are ubiquitous in Japan, but Asagaya’s has more of a lived-in, community feel to it than most. One stop west of Kōenji, the town is renowned for its theater and jazz, and Star Road (スターロード), just northwest of the station, offers ample eating and drinking options.

Asagaya

Star Road

Yorunohirune (よるのひるね〒166-0001杉並区阿佐ヶ谷北2-13-4) is an interesting, and relatively famous café you might miss across from a local market.

Yorunohirune

Even when you’re inside, you’re still unsure if you’ve just walked into a stranger’s house uninvited, which temporarily sapped some of the confidence out of my ordering voice, but it’s also part of the experience. The proprietor, Kadota-san, is originally from Shikoku. He’s very friendly and makes you feel right at home. You’re welcome to peruse his huge library of books, while you sip or nibble from the menu, and he plays host and DJ.

Yorunohirune 2

He also has an interesting manga for sale about his relationship with his wife, which she illustrated.

Manga

Just off of Star Road is Laputa, which is a theater well known among cinephiles for showing independent and experimental films (Japanese language). Asagaya Anime Street is due to open sometime in the middle of this month, stretching for a hundred meters or so under the Chuō line tracks between Asagaya and Kōenji train stations.

Ramen lovers owe themselves a visit to Ogikubo, one stop west of Asagaya, where Tokyo style ramen originated.  Perhaps the most famous shop is Harukiya (春木屋), which has a fish bone-based ramen recipe that has remained a guarded secret for over half a century. Unless you don’t mind a line putting an hour or more between your empty stomach and prize, try to time your visit between the lunch and dinner rushes.

Ogikubo

Many artists, authors and other creative professionals call Kichijōji home, and it has a palpable bohemian atmosphere about it. It’s located just a couple stops to the west of Ogikubo. On the north side of the station, just to the left, you’ll see Harmonica Yokochō (ハーモニカ横丁), which is a collection of narrow winding alleys, and cramped eateries and watering holes with an old town feel. Continuing west, you’ll come across Nakamichi, and its many small craft and antique stores. Beautiful Inokashira Park is south of the tracks, and a popular place to see cherry blossoms in spring, or just stroll any time of year. The streets to the north of the lake lead you back to the station, passing by international restaurants and more modern shops.

Door

So, if you feel like experiencing something a little different from the well-trampled inner loop, why not hop on the Chuō line for a few minutes and discover your new favorite haunt? You’ll feel like you traveled much further in space and time, and I think you’ll like the quick escape.

Chuo Line

Tokaido Trailing Diaries – Kyoto sights and delights

Rob Harris and the Tokaido Trail group continued their tour back in November from the hot springs of Hakone to the old capital of Kyoto where they were to stay the next 3 nights. There is so much to do in this city and so much that they did do on this tour. If you want to know a bit more about what does happen on tour, have a read of the Tokaido Trailing Diaries from Rob Harris….by the way always worth looking at the links….

Day’s 6 & 7 – Kyoto

Day 6
Feeling very much refreshed, we packed up our stuff and said a fond farewell to the ryokan staff. I was pretty sad to leave, as I’d felt very much at home in Hakone, with its laid-back atmosphere, warm welcome and stunning mountainous scenery. In this land of contrasts, Hakone had given us all yet another different aspect of this fascinating country. One thing remained constant though, as everyone we encountered on our travels appeared unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful. And if you were able to use even the most basic of Japanese phrases, and do so in a polite, respectful way, they responded with a big smile and even greater displays of gratitude. Something tells me I’ll be back there at some point in the future.

Hikari Shinkansen
Another bus took us back down the twisty mountain road to Odawara station to catch the 10.12am train – and not just any old train, this time it was going to be the long-awaited Shinkansen, the famous “Bullet Train”. Even queuing up on the platform is done in an orderly, polite, well-mannered Japanese fashion. You find the number on the floor matching the carriage your seats will be in, take your place between the painted lines, and then wait for the exact minute – and I mean, the EXACT minute!! – the train arrives, and then lo and behold, the door to your carriage comes to a halt precisely opposite the markings on the floor, almost to the inch. Considering some of these trains can be 16 carriages long and travel anything up to 190mph, that’s pretty impressive accuracy.

On board, the feeling is more akin to an airliner than a train carriage – smooth, quiet and very efficient. There was little sensation of the speeds we were travelling at, so I used a GPS speedometer app I’d downloaded on my smartphone, clocking an indicated 166mph as a peak speed. I don’t know how accurate that was, but it was the second fastest I’d ever travelled on land. The smooth ride gave us the chance to catch up on making notes of the trip so far, grab a quick catnap, or just stare idly out of the windows at the scenery flashing past – unfortunately we were again denied a clear glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji due to cloud cover.

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Arriving in Kyoto Station with its dramatic main hall, we dumped our bags off in the storage lockers, and then caught a local train down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The bright sunshine reflected strongly off the luridly orange torii, another of those iconic Japanese images that I found fascinating. After doing the obligatory purification ritual, and also following the necessary procedure to make a quick prayer to the Gods at the Shrine, we took a shortened tour through the avenues of torii gates – the full hike up the hillside can take 2-3 hours.

I ticked another item off my “Things to do whilst in Japan” list at lunchtime, with a visit to a proper sushi bar, the kind with the conveyor belt of various dishes passing by in front of you, and the chefs preparing the food before your very eyes. I’m not the greatest lover of fish or seafood, but in the spirit of at least trying every new experience I could whilst in Japan, I tucked in – and I have to admit, it was pretty darned good!

Gion
After collecting our bags from the lockers, we had the first taxi of our time in Japan for the short trip to our hotel. I’ve mentioned before about how polite the locals are – Japanese taxis are so polite, they even open and close their own doors for you!! Quickly dumping off our bags and collecting the luggage which had been forwarded on from Kamakura, we had time for a short pit-stop, before another taxi-ride to the Minamiza kabuki theatre to meet Mie, our guide for the Geiko district tour. For me, this was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Mie was a brilliant host – witty, knowledgeable, with a well-practised patter, she brought the district to life and gave us a fantastic insight in to a world which is still largely secretive and unknown, even to the Japanese themselves. The Geiko themselves, along with their Maiko trainees, are very elusive and private people, keeping their customers and business on an extremely exclusive basis. Mie told us how hordes of paparazzi lurk outside the larger teahouses, hoping for a glimpse of a Geiko or Maiko, and how once spotted, they tend to walk very quickly out of sight – if we were fortunate, we might catch a glimpse ourselves too.

Maiko
We were fortunate indeed that night, as within minutes of starting the tour, we saw our first Maiko, followed by another three or four as the tour progressed through Gion district. Even Mie was taken aback at this, and said it had been an exceptional night. I claimed it was good luck brought on by my bright red fleece jacket!! (white and red are considered “lucky” colours in Japan) Saying farewell to Mie, we had our traditional multi-course kaiseki Japanese dinner, with each small dish comprising only the freshest, locally-sourced, seasonal foods and each complimenting the other.

It was then time to hit the town and sample some of the late-night attractions the bright lights of Kyoto had to offer. For the second time on tour, I hit the sack at about 3am – the next day was likely to prove challenging!!

Night out

Day 7

Today was to be a day of temples and pounding the pavements. First up was the Yasaka Shrine, before heading to the Kodai-ji Temple with its tranquil Zen gardens, huge bamboo grove and striking architecture – yet another archetypal image of Japan. Walking further on, through the timeless streets lined with restaurants and shops of all kinds, accepting the free samples of green tea and pickled plums as we went, we headed up towards the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were left to our own devices today and were confident that we’d learnt enough about Japan to get around by now.

After sipping some of the holy water (the “kiyo mizu” of the temple’s name), we walked back towards central Kyoto in the search of some much-needed food! At this point, I have to apologise to all my fellow tour members, and make the admission that I took the easy option and headed to McDonalds once more. Making our way back to the hotel, we met up with Claire and then took a further walk up to Nijo-jo Castle. This was definitely worth the extra pain in my feet, as the castle and its surrounding gardens are simply stunning. It was amazing value too, being just 600 yen to enter – we reckoned a similar experience in the UK would have been three times the cost.

A lot of people who I’d told I was coming to Japan had expected it to be expensive, but in my experience, it wasn’t really the case. OK, the beers in the evening weren’t exactly student bar prices, but the things which really mattered, the transport and the visitor sights, were all very reasonably priced. You could also grab a pretty decent meal for no more money than it would be at home too, plus you had the reassurance it was in all likelihood a whole lot fresher and better prepared!

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Tonight’s dinner was yet another new experience, with Alain taking us out to experience a hot pot meal. Dipping the thinly sliced pork and vegetables in to the hot bowls of citrus-based ponzu sauce was reminiscent of the shabu shabu we’d had on the second night in Tokyo, and very tasty – once all the pork and vegetables had been eaten, we mixed a little green curry paste in to the remaining sauce, and drank it as a fabulously spicy soup.

Walking back through the neon-lit streets of downtown Kyoto after dinner, it all felt very easy-going and relaxed, until we came across a Pachinko parlour. We ducked our heads in for a quick look, and were astonished at the noise! How on earth do the regulars there tolerate the din without going deaf? We’d had enough after about two minutes, and that was more than long enough to experience one more of those uniquely Japanese things I’d had on my list.

You are probaly wondering as to why there are only two nights from Kyoto here. There is another day, which is considered a ‘free day’ when travellers can choose to wither stay in the city or utilise the Rail Pass and head out to one of the many places which are easily reached via the sleek and speedy Shinkansen…but we will save that for another post. Thanks for sharing this Rob!

Noodly heaven at Kyoto Station

Been looking forward to that first meal in Japan? Well, why not slurp down some delicious noodles at Kyoto Station straight off the train from Kansai Airport? Surely there could be no better welcome to Japan than a chilled plate of ‘zaru-soba’ in summer, or a steaming hot bowl of udon in autumn or winter.

Plastic food at Kyoto Station

Tasty plastic food… or is it! That tempura looks real to me

On many occasions I have arrived at or departed from platform 30 at Kyoto Station. Home to the Haruka Express which runs between Kyoto and Kansai Airport, platform 30 has at its entrance a small noodle restaurant. How many times I have walked past this modest establishment (or perhaps more often than not, late for my train, running in an ungainly fashion, shoulder bag swinging as I attempt to pull my luggage along behind me in a frantic rush to not miss my departure and more likely than not, my flight!)? It is hard to say but I had not once stopped and thought to myself why not go sample their tasty fare.

That is until today!… Or rather 9 days ago now I have finally published this post. Fresh off the train from KIX, I was meandering along the platform with only a handful of other new arrivals when I felt myself being drawn towards the plastic depictions of noodles promising a noodly heaven and perhaps more pertinently, having missed breakfast on the plane (those final minutes of what passes for sleep on long haul flights were worth far more to me than some cold meats and a ropey croissant), satisfaction for my quietly murmuring stomach – “Feed me, feed me” – well at least that is what I assume it was saying anyway.

Udon Kyoto Station

I can’t get no satisfaction… or maybe if I just get in line, then I can!

I joined the queue of suited salarymen, gave my order – “udon kudasai” and mere seconds later was handed over a bowl of the steaming hot thick white noodles. From the help yourself tempura I selected a prawn, a thick, flat piece of squid and just for good measure, tempura ‘nasu’ – aubergine. At the end of the counter were the essential condiments – spring onions, fresh ginger paste, soy sauce, “sauce” and my personal must have, shichimi, a mixed chilli spice. Fortunately I was not the only diner with major luggage so didn’t feel to awkward as I clumsily made my way to the window-side counter to take my seat and tuck in.

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And 10 minutes later it was all over. And now that a week has passed, my Kyoto Station noodles are but a mere memory. But I will be back! These might not have been the best noodles in the world. They might not even be the best noodles at Kyoto Station. But for a first meal back in Japan this was true noodly heaven. Yokosou Japan!!

Mad cows in Kobe

I am putting this blog post together just before lunch time and its not easy as it is making me incredibly hungry.

One of our fantastic Japan staff, Ayako Kiyono recently took it upon herself to visit a Kobe beef farm.  I am sure that you have heard of Kobe Beef, but these days the term ‘Kobe Beef’ seems to be linked to any meat where the animals have been reared slightly differently to the usual methods as I recently found on a trip to Cornwall. The landlord of a pub and farmer was feeding his cows and pigs on local beer and producing his own, “Kobe beef and pork”. It was nice, but it certainly wasn’t the real McCoy.

The real Kobe beef is produced in the Hyogo area of Japan and Kiyono san wanted to actually see what went into producing the finest beef in the world. She travelled to Takami Kobe Beef farm in the rural town of Ichijima to find out and here is what she discovered.

 

What is the Kobe Beef?

No cows are born to be “Kobe Beef” cow.

Only Tajima-gyu cows (special breed in Hyogo prefecture) that satisfy the specific quality criteria deserve the title “Kobe Beef”.

Roughly 3000 Tajima-gyu cows manage to pass the criteria and titled as Kobe Beef every year.

Takami san delivered this calf the previous night and is nursing it himself.

Who discovered Kobe Beef for the first time?

Surprisingly, it was an Englishman! Until 1868, Japanese were not accustomed to eating meat, but that year, Kobe opened its doors to foreign trade as an international port and Kobe Beef was eaten for the first time.

 How are the cows raised?

The mother and baby names are written next to each calf.

At the Takami Kobe Beef Farm, the following methods are use for their cows;

Cows drink Sakamizu water. Sakamizu refers to spring water that is used to brew fine Sake.

Cows take a shower twice a day. (Shampoo and treatment)

Cows are talked to by farmers. (Farmers check each cows health by talking to them)

Each cow has Japanese name and taken care very well by farmers.

Cows are watched 24h through security camera.

Cows do not do any exercise.

Calves relax. No moooving for these cows!

 Are there any problems with raising pure-blood Tajima-Gyu?

Pure-blood Tajima Cows are not as healthy as their half-blood counterpart.

Pure-blood cows tend to be born premature and grow slowly.

New calves are kept in their own shed.

 What is special about Kobe Takami Beef Farm?

Takami Kobe Beef Farm won the championship for Kobe Beef 2010 and the farm has an official license.

Normally, each process, such as breeding, raising, and fattening are done separately by different farmers who is specialized in each process. Visitors to Takami can observe all the processes that go into raising a ‘Kobe Beef Cow’.

The highest grade kobe beef.

Takami Beef Farm has restaurants where visitors are able to enjoy fresh Kobe beef for reasonable prices. Try a Kobe beef rice bowl (Gyudon) or  1260 yen or the best Takami Kobe beef course at lunch time for an incredible 3800 yen.

 

Takami Kobe Beef Farm is approximately a 2h 15 minute train ride from Kyoto by train. If you want to eat the best beef in the world and at a decent price…and see exactly what goes into producing it, then it might be worth a visit. Let us know and we can organise it for you!

 

10 Reasons why Japan is so great. No. 3 – The people

This is pretty broad again, but has to be mentioned among the reasons as to why Japan is so great – The people. I won’t go on about the Japanese stoicism and other clichés, but will try and explain a bit about my experience with Japanese people and what makes them so damn nice.

This is sort of linked with Liam’s ‘Are you being served?’ blog post and his comments about first class service from regular staff in a regular shop. Just about wherever you go in Japan and with whatever profession you encounter, Japanese people will always be doing their job proud, delivering first class service whether you are in a back street noodle joint, convenience store or a Michelin star restaurant. You will be treated as the customer should and with due respect, even if you are a foreigner….it might take them a bit of time to pluck up the courage to speak to you, but you will be treated well. Surely this idea of first class service in a shop/restaurant etc should be practised all over the world, but alas it is not which is perhaps why it is so obvious in Japan.

Many westerners will often believe that  Japanese are very reserved and introverted people, keeping themselves to themselves. However in general, given the chance, this is the opposite to my experience. Salarymen after a few drinks have been the source of some of my most interesting and funny moments in Japan. People, especially in the rural areas where few foreigners get to, will also go out of their way on occasion to greet you, or even perhaps give you a nice gift completely out of the blue. It is always great to hear customers come back from Japan and talk about the time that they were slightly lost in Kyoto for example and a non-English speaking stranger, helped them back on to a train in the other direction, got off the train with them, walked out of the station to a particular hotel/restaurant/shop, smile and say, “bye bye”, bow and walk off to continue what they were doing! They didn’t want any money or to mug them. They just wanted to help and make sure that they enjoyed their time in Japan. I have heard many stories like this, but each one unique and no less heart-warming to hear.

I am aware that I am generalising about the people of Japan, but I am sure that if you visit, your experiences with people will be largely positive, providing you with many delightful travelling tales to tell on your return….That’s if anyone will bother listening to you! The people are definitely one of the reasons as to why Japan is so great.

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Kyoto Café Culture

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A Japanese Business Lunch in London

On a recent trip to London I decided to go along to Tsuru, a fairly new Japanese restaurant, just behind the Tate Modern on the South Bank. I had been recommended this place by a friend who had also lived in Japan, so was looking forward to an authentic Japanese meal (by London standards!) I was suitably impressed. What makes Tsuru different from most Japanese restaurants in London is that they focus on casual dishes, reasonably priced and served speedily. Part of the reason for this is that their main trade is lunchtime, not evenings. So rather than serving huge platters of overpriced and under-fresh sushi they offer a fantastic range of ‘bento’ boxes (commonplace in Japan), featuring a range of fresh contents, many of them healthy and wholesome, as goes the reputation for Japanese food. However as is often the case one of the most delicious options is one of the less healthy options!

One of their featured offerings is a range of ‘katsu bento’, a choice of meat, fish or veg breaded and fried to crisp finish, served over rice with a lovely mild curry sauce. ‘Kare-raisu‘ (have you worked that one out yet?) is actually claimed to be the most popular food in Japan, but rarely makes it onto the menu in overseas Japanese restaurants. I was impressed with Tsuru’s katsu (I went for chicken) and also with the other dishes I had, including gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), edamame (soya beans – great as a snack with beer!) and miso soup. I was there in the evening, and they do open until 9pm, so although lunchtime is their main trade you can still go along in the early evening and have a great casual meal. I will definitely be back to Tsuru. They are bringing another side of Japanese cuisine to London, and showing that the Japanese do fast food better (and generally healthier!) than anyone. If you are planning a trip to Japan, or have been there in the past and long for a taste of your favourites go along to Tsuru; you won’t be disappointed.

Tsuru, Fabulous & Affordable Japanese Food

Tsuru, Fabulous & Affordable Japanese Food

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