Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tokyo photos are up!

The album is still a bit disorganized, but feel free to take a look!


Tokyo Highlights: FOOD!!

Dear god have the Japanese got the good eats thing sorted! Central Tokyo is positively AWASH in yumminess from all over the world. Decades of prosperity have brought every conceivable cuisine to town to mingle with domestic cookery refined by centuries of thought about how to take pleasure and nourishment from food.

There is little if any ghettoization notable. The French stuff is side-by-side with the local, Thai, Indian, Byelorussian, etc. Heck, we even wandered by a New Orleans themed “Bourbon Street Bar” on a back alley in Roppongi sandwiched between a yakitori joint and a soba shop.

Five dinners & four lunches weren’t nearly enough to even begin to sample the offerings. We concentrated entirely on Japanese food (novelty aside, I can get good pasta in a lot of other places). Thanks to JM’s knowledge of the city and language skills, we were able to get a taste for a lot of stuff we would have missed.

Our lack of experience with Japanese cuisine means that we didn’t bring many preconceived notions of what we liked or didn’t. Thus, the experience of trying new food and new ways of eating played a major roll for much of our trip. We’re usually 100% food-centric – atmosphere plays at most an amusing supporting role. On this trip, some of our favorite experiences were all about (or at least equally about) the atmosphere/experience rather than the food itself. Thus, two lists.

Favorite food experiences:

1. Sukiyaki & shabu-shabu at Roppongi Jidaiya. A basement right off Roppongi Dori houses this comfortable izakaya serving up a wide selection of home-style food. We wandered down the winding staircase from street level through the diminutive doorway and were quickly seated at a comfortable corner table looking out at a room filled mostly with sararīman getting some after-work socializing done.
While shabu-shabu is basically the Japanese version of the “steamboat” dish offered by every East Asian culture, it’s still a fun communal cooking and dining experience. Also, the typical Japanese fetish for the finest quality ingredients really stood out – beautiful meat and produce here. Our favorite taste, however, was by far the sukiyaki.

2. Okonomiyaki at Sometaro in Asakusa. This old school low ceiling joint had a line running down the block for a reason.

Once again, the experience of cooking & chowing down on the crêpe-cum-pancake-thingies was a blast. Just being in the space made us happy. Check out the video below for a look at the process.

3. Wandering the food hall at the Takashimaya department store in Shinjuku. Harrod’s is for wannabes. Seriously, this is the greatest free food attraction in town. All that stuff I said before about the diversity of global cusine available in Tokyo? Yea. Now put it all inside a Sax Fith Avenue and you’ve got an idea of what it is to stroll the food offerings at this high-end Tokyo department store. We ended up grabbing a taste of a lot of things and finding a bench on the roof top to have our experimental picnic.

Roppongi Jidaiya
B1 Yuni Roppongi Bldg.
7-15-17 Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032

2-2-2 Nishi-Asakusa
Taito-ku, Tokyo

Takashimaya Shinjuku
5-24-2, Sendagaya
Shibuya-ku , Tokyo 151-8580

Favorite dishes:

1. Korokke Pan from the 60 year old Nagano Bakery right on Roppongi Dori. JM sent us over here and we’ll never forgive him. That handful of heaven haunts our dreams. Pleen woke up in a jet lagged fog in our bedroom last night and mumbled “korokeeeeeee pannnn”.

Breakfast of champions!!

2. Spicy tonkatsu ramen from Ippudo in Roppongi. This dish was so good that we’re going to New York to try the offering at their US location. Can’t stop thinking about it. Admittedly, the place itself was great with a funky and charming staff of young turks and a common dinning area rambunctious with groups of friends slurping happily away. But the noodles?! Oh, those noodles.

3. Random “shrimp burger” from a tour group rest cafe near the Yasukuni shrine. It took us so long to make our way over to this part of town that we were in serious need of a refuel by the time with got within range. Imagine our surprise when the food turned out to be pretty good. This block of fresh shrimp held together in fried goodness was better than that. Imagine MY surprise when Pleen appropriated my sandwich!
4. Red bean and cream “pancakes” from a street side shop in Asakusa. These are made by pouring batter into a mold, inserting a bit of filling in the center, and closing the mold to yield a sealed snack filled with molten goodness. We used to love the ones at the Japanese department stores in Singapore. Yea . . . we didn’t know what we were doing. These were spectacular. Thin and flavorful and stuffed with high quality fillings. More than worth the stop.

5. Black sesame ice cream from snack shop near the Sensouji Temple in Asakusa. JM brought us over here to visit the “Japanese 31 flavors”. While my Yuzu flavored cone was grand – redolent with the sweet citrus flavor and bits of the fruit itself, JM’s sesame flavored portion was the clear winner. This was adult soft serve – deeply flavored and luxurious.

Nagano Bakery
2-17-31 Akasaka
Minato-ku, Tokyo

4-9-11, Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tokyo Highlights: Planes, Trains, & Buses

Tokyo’s Narita airport long occupied a groan-inducing role in the hearts of many of us who traveled through it on our way to other parts of Asia. Its refurbished incarnation, however, is a total pleasure both for passing through and as a point of entry. Immigration was fast & efficient - although the Japanese government now has my fingerprints and photo on disk.

Rather than spending a fortune on a slow-moving cab or dragging our bags through multiple train changes, we followed JC’s advice and grabbed two tickets on the Airport Limousine service’s bus to town. For ~ $33 per head, we got a speedy, safe, and comfy ride to a drop point two blocks from our buddy’s apartment. The hour and a half ride into the center of town offered up a lovely set of views and non-stop service that departed precisely on time and arrived earlier than promised. The return trip to the airport several days later was just as smooth.

Airport Limousine

Tokyo Highlights: Getting around

Last time ‘round we felt notably constrained by our lack of Japanese language capability. Getting on a train or navigating the streets or ordering a meal was a major effort. This wasn’t an issue this time. Perhaps our last sample was unlucky? Perhaps there’s been a boom in English language signage and education? I don’t know. But this time we felt we could find our way and feed our faces with no difficulty.

This was a particular boon in that it freed us to use the fantastic (but complex!) Tokyo rail network to hop from point to point.

Still, we did a lot of walking. Tokyo’s neighborhood topography is so varied that strolling between major areas really helps to fill out the mental map of the town. We enjoyed moving from the glitzy consumer haven of Shinjuku to the teen fashion alleys of Harajuku. A long stroll past the majestic Imperial Palace, through the public spaces filled with museums and tour groups leading to the Yasukuni shrine made for a lovely morning. But it was certainly a total counterpoint to our evening amongst the hipsters in the narrow lanes of Naka Meguro.

Everywhere we went, we were amazed at how the compacted hustle & bustle of the busiest neighborhoods gave way to charming quiet residential areas just a block or two off the main drag. In the frenetic center of Roppongi right across from the ultra-modern high end Tokyo Midtown development (the new Ritz Carlton residences look down on this gourmet shopping mall), walking 100 meters off the main street left us in the midst of idyllic pocket parks and picture perfect small homes.

This is a great town for wandering about and bumping into pleasant surprises.

Positive reinforcement for light packing

Walking out of Dulles passport control after a week-long trip to Tokyo, we made straight for the customs exit without stopping at the luggage carousel.

As I handed my Form 6059B to the CBP agent, he sternly demanded, “Where the heck are your BAGS !?” I was so lagged out that it took me a second to look up into his grinning face.

I pointed to the daypack on my shoulder, lifted the tote in my hand, and shrugged. “Get on outta here man,” he said as he shooed us on our way - cackling as we went.

"One Bag" travel has lots of bennies. If the customs guys are diggin' ya, life is certainly easier.

Only in Japan

One of the greatest things in the air travel world has to be the "Magic Beer Machine" in the United Airlines Red Carpet Lounge next to Gate 31 at Tokyo Narita.

A tilting platform? A separate foam-jet to put the perfect head on it!? Only the Japanese would do such a thing. God love 'em!

Watch and be amazed.


The promise of 2 million extra people flopping onto DC’s already overloaded infrastructure was enough to motivate us for a quick trip out of town. Two tickets on United 803, a bit of a visa drama (boo-hiss on you mean-embassy-visa-lady), and we were off to Tokyo!

We were in there for 3 days back in 2001 and have always wanted to return. Our buddy JC & her boyfriend JM made the trip possible by offering us a bed at their place.

Bottom line up front: Tokyo rocks! What a great town. The density and diversity of cool stuff combined with the safety, ease of access, and great people make it a world class destination. It's a must-return town for us.

In five days on the ground we wandered and laughed and ATE . . . a lot. We’ll put up some smaller individual posts to cover several highlights. Stand by!