I will ‘ave a fishy on a little dishy

After the wild success of visiting Kitchen Town yesterday, we set out to tackle the big one today. Tokyo Fish Markets – both inner and outer. Web sites all seemed to issue warnings, particularly around the New year’s period, concerning personal safety and the wisdom of taking small children to the area. It also was obvious that an early start would be required.

Crowd Scene
Alarm rang at 7am and we were out of the hotel and on our way to Tsujiki Station before 8am. We have by now given up any hope of starting our days with anything other than drip coffee, but still hopefully check anything labelled a café for something approaching an espresso machine. With this in mind and an excited Eamon, we allowed him to respond to the siren call of the Golden Arches and the thought of espresso coffee near the Tsukiji station. Sadly the sausage and egg griddle cake was a strange sweet pancake with uncooked bacon fat and we neglected to realise there was an espresso coffee surcharge and ended up with another weak drip coffee. But back to the pursuit of fish…
The outer market was not far from the station and we knew we were on track by the array of street vendors flogging fishy stuff along the way. The steady stream of thousands of people disappearing around the corner was also a solid sign we were near. Our turn to turn the corner and yet another of those OMG moments Tokyo has provided us with. Tens of thousands of people covering the road and footpaths with stalls on both sides of both footpaths with streams of people packed so tight it was not possible to move freely. Mix this with tough looking fish market guys zooming at ridiculous speeds through the masses on little three wheel carts with horns blaring, stall holder types on motor bikes and scooters, film crews and tourists and this was a scene to behold. The stalls were filled with everything fishy you could imagine. A couple sold Fugu fins, some sold melts and roe, some tuna livers, all kinds of fish, rays, octopus, squid…
Zoom Zoom
I caught a strong whiff of haddock (I thought) and then came to a fish smoking stall at the top of the street. There were tiny bars with 6 seats. The odd toothpick stand, some sushi places with huge queues outside them and a most amazing overall scene. This was truly amazing and then we came to the actual markets themselves. All those warnings about personal safety had been understatement. People are so close to being skittled by all manner of three wheeled vehicles, trucks and bikes imaginable – they don’t slow down and they come at you from every angle as you try and cross the forecourt into the market building. We chose a route past the Mt Everest of Styrofoam boxes and around the back of a couple of parked trucks and made it into the relative sanctuary of the main market’s rabbit warren of wholesale stalls. The three wheelers don’t stop inside and they’re supplemented by guys with hugely long hand carts. The stalls themselves were obviously reaching the end of their day with the last of their stock out, but it was still teeming with people. There was still tuna blood and fish heads and livers and prawns in tanks and trays of fugu and trays of red octopus and mountains of tiny gar-like fish and guys shaving huge frozen chunks of tuna or band sawing them. The little alleyways seemed togo on and on with strange sea creatures at every turn. Pip wondered if there were any fish left in the sea. Eams was amazed by the live fish beheadings at one stall. After an hour or so, we headed back out to the forecourt to run the gauntlet again and found ourselves on the other side of the market where there was another maze of tiny alleys with huge queues for the various restaurants up and down the lanes. We explored these lanes for as while before heading back to the station and off to our second destination for the day, Akihabara (Electric Town).
Mystery lunch
It wasn’t too far on the train, but we were all grateful for a quick sit. I do find sitting on a slightly too heated seat a little off-putting and possibly a little bum burning, but I can come to terms with it after a morning’s walking.
Akihabara is a little draining. There are about a dozen city blocks of electronics stores, all with blaring sound and lights, all with spruikers and all with gaudy coloured posters up to about level 10 on the outside. It’s a bit like spending a couple of hours in side-show alley. We happened upon a little corner with three food caravans and some temporary tables and chairs. Two of the caravans promised doner kebabs, and indeed had cartoon sized kebabs turning on their rotary grills and one had a man in a van with a griddle on a pan. He was pouring a pancake-ish mixture onto the griddle and filling them with things as they rose into balls. Pip and I pointed at the pictures on the menu – I got one with mayo and shallot on top and Pip’s had one with shredded nori. Still don’t know what they were, but they were eaten with chopsticks and yummy, kind of gooey inside and hot and tasty. Eams had a kebab in a half a fluffy pita bread. We trolled through a few of the huge stores and were particularly amazed by the ones that sold anime models and toys. Found a shop that had a remarkable deal on a camera which we bought and Pip narrowly avoided being dragged off by a Maid to a Maid Café, which in itself is a very weird concept quite popular in this area. Lots of giggling, fawning and waving maids.
Dinner from the super market – Sushi for Eamon, Salmon set for Pip and I had some French bread with ham and my foodhall tomatoes.


What we need is a great big melting pot.

Entrance to Kitchen-Town

Being an urban gent and married to a hospitality diva, it was necessary for us to visit Kappabashi today. Kappabashi is a district that is the source of that plastic food that Japanese restaurants have out front. It’s also an amazing strip of shops that sells everything a restaurant or cafe could ever want. From theming your 1950’s American diner to chopstick rests. From lacquer wear to giant lobsters holding blackboards, this area has it all in truckloads. Even though a lot of shops closed for the New Year holidays today, we were left with hours of entertainment up and down a street that starts at the 8 storey building with the huge chef’s head on top.

Domo arigato, Mr Roboto

Our original plan had been to return to the hotel for a rest before heading out to Harajuku for dinner, but on the way back to the station we wandered a little further down the road for Eams to introduce himself to Mr Donut and happened to spy a little street that looked interesting. The little street turned out to be Alice’s Rabbit Hole and we were once again left standing slack-jawed in the street in the middle of a huge market. Tiny stalls had artisans making rice crackers over open fires, people queuing for fried, mincey, garlicky dumplings (a bit like a piroshki) and eating in public! (apparently OK within a certain radius of a street food outlet). There were Rickshaws, kimono shops, kabuki theatres, a brush shop, cake shops and who knows what else spread over the 6 or 7 blocks of the Kappabashi Markets. We roamed the markets and followed the flow of people down a hill and into the amazing Sensoji Temple

Cookie Cutters

Lunch – Tempura set

A beautiful place in a beautiful setting. This place features a couple of particularly big things. There’s the big Japanese lantern, the big rope sandal and the two big and savage looking gods who guard the gate. The thing to do here, so we heard on a video on the plane, is the smoke. In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a large cauldron that looks a bit like a well that smokes a lot. It smokes because thousands of pilgrims purchase bundles of incense, light them then stick them in the sand in the cauldron to burn. Consequently, the cauldron is full of burning incense and smokes profusely. Once the incense is placed in the sand the idea is to wave the smoke over whatever part of you requires fixing or blessing. We reverently joined in, purchasing our incense and lighting it, placing it in the sand, waving the smoke, then retreating to the fountain to scoop cups of water over our hands for a ritual cleansing before entering the huge temple. It’s throw-some-money-in-the-pit and clap kind of temple, so it’s quite noisy. After this bout of amazement, and given it was around 4:30pm and getting dark, we headed back to the subway and off to Harajuku.

This town is one amazement after another. Here was another disappearing up the hill and out of sight wide avenue with fairy lit trees and thousands of people. More Chanels, Ralph Laurens and Ferragamos. Eamon fell at the first hurdle and bundled out of the Puma store with a new t-shirt before realising that next door was a four level Nike Shop of outstanding design and appeal. Naturally, round the corner were equally impressive Adidas and Kamo stores. Fortunately, we also happened upon a groovy young man in a tiny temporary cafe on an intersection who had an espresso machine and knew how to use it. Short blacks all around to prepare us for another 5km before dinner. Visited the Kangol shop and the MOMA Design Store, ogled a number of French and Austrian cake shops and then turned off the main drag at the Ralph Lauren building. Now the side streets were really interesting. These were where the young funky ones obviously came – I mean the young AND the funky ones came. Sneaker shops, retro and used fashions, tiny little bars and skate board shops, a smattering of graffiti – very cool place. Wandered these streets for a while and wound our way back up to near the station, sadly seeing only one of the famous Harajuku Girls. We chose a non-Japanese restaurant for dinner which was prob’ly a mistake, … 

A chain restaurant (never seen or heard of another though) called Wolfgang Puck Express – a kind of burgers and pasta and pizza place. We were very tired after that and still had to navigate home. Our twelve hour walking day was over – it was back to Shinjuku and back to the hotel shuttle and home to bed.
Incense placement

Rice cracker manufactur

Take the A Train…

Destination – Ginza. Challenge 1 – a better coffee. Challenge 2 – find a supermarket. Challenge 3 – Tokyo subway.

So much for self-sufficient, tech-savvy travellers. Since arriving here we have been stymied by the very technology that has sustained us in other parts of the world. Our iPhones have been castrated both by lack of global roaming and lack of wi-fi. Our old battered iBook G4, which is making it’s last trip with us (shhh!) somehow lost the research folder so carefully prepared at home and the hotel is charging $20 a day per device for access. At least today global roaming miraculously kicked in so we are contactable (in emergencies only, Reuben!). The point of this tech rambling is that I had to ask someone something. I know, not supposed to happen to urban gents abroad, but desperate times…

One of the 100’s of staff who seem to be employed to bow to people in the lobby was kind enough to point us in the direction of a local supermarket which we required to purchase some essentials. I must say though, you can tell a lot about a country by it’s supermarkets. Pip and I love wandering the aisles guessing what things are – quite a difficult game for us in Japan as we have no knowledge of the written language (…does that make it sound like we have a knowledge of the spoken language, ’cause that’d be wrong?). We did realise though that this would be the place for some, shall we say, more reasonably priced prepared food.

On our way to the supermarket, we came to a crossroads in our lives. There was a coffee shop that had a logo that looked like Starbucks right in our way. Now because this actually was Starbucks, we had a dilemna. Being outspoken anti-Starbuckists, we knew we shouldn’t, but thinking that maybe here was an actual proper coffee pushed us to qualify our ban on Starbucks with an “except in Japan” clause. Sadly, Starbucks in Japan has lost it’s temporary exclusion status, following a pair of sad, sad coffee coloured drinks. We will search on.

Up to our third challenge for the day – the metro. Beneath our hotel is a subway signed, ‘to the Maranouchi Line’, which happily was the only line we required to travel from Nishi-Shinjuku to Ginza. It took about twenty minutes of tunnel walking to reach the station; about five minutes of ticket figuring out and purchasing (much easier after we found the button that made it change into english), and; about 23.57 minutes to reach Ginza by unremarkable train journey. Having said that, I do particularly like the music they play as the train is boarding at the station. It’s the kind of music that suggests a telly-tubby is approaching.

Food Hall Staff and Pip

The Ginza and the surrounding streets have the feel of Paris. Wide avenues. High fashion. A mix of older and modern architecture. Really quite stunning. There are more department stores, at least two or three big ones, each with mind-blowing food halls in their basements – these were more impressive than yesterdays – they had concessions for famous gourmet names like Paul Bocuse and Maxim’s. I should point out that none of these gourmet hot spots had more than glorified urns to dispense coffee. We visited the Sony building and spent time playing with PS3s and cameras and three-D demonstrations. Lunchtime saw us back on the pristine streets and on the lookout for a restaurant. We tend to steer away from the main streets and head down side streets when looking for food and again we were rewarded with a tiny Ramen Bar called Hot Pepper. Being our first such bar, we now know that you should pay by pressing a number of buttons on a machine inside the door that has pictures of food on it, then putting the money into the machine. The Ramen man did that for us as he brought us paper bibs as protection against noodle splash. Lordy, the ramen was good. Beef with shallots, mushroom and noodles with a half a soft-boiled egg and three sheets of nori on top. Slurpalicious!

Eams bibbed and ready


Following that roaring success, we headed back outside to marvel and oooh and aaah at the street life. The Ginza itself is chockers with with high-end fashion, like Hermes, Chanel and homegrown high end, like Mikimoto. Fascinating as this was, we found our way into side and back streets where we stumbled upon one of the city’s gems – an actual coffee bar with a coffee machine and (our) style. The tiny white shop was empty – apparently hardly anyone actually wants what we call coffee – it had grungy, hip-hop playing and Mr Cool- personified behind the counter. Mr Cool turned out to be a Japanese of hawaiian descent who arrived in Tokyo via LA and New York. He had really long hair, funked-to-the-max clothes, a tattooed chest and arms and was called Glen O and he did graffiti art. He and his girlfriend had opened this tiny bar to sell coffee, alcohol and vitamin supplements (of course). Pip opted for a couple of multi-vitamin pills, served in a tiny glass bowl with her coffee. I declined and Eamon was quiet. Our short blacks were so fabulous, I had to have a second. We left ‘Vita’ with a note listing two other Tokyo cafes of similar ilk and Glen offering to be on stand-by for any any questions we might phone through about Tokyo.

Appley fun
Oriental Gem – Vita

Invigorated by caffeine and vitamin supplements, we pushed on back to the Ginza station and were almost there when Pip spyed with her little eye, something beginning with ‘A’. I felt my little iPhone twitch in my pocket at the buzz of free internet. The giant silver and glass AppleStore – four floors of Appley fun and toys populated by hundreds of fan folk and red-shirted staff (we counted 27 staff on the ground floor alone). I let off a couple of quick tweets, then communed with the iPads and the Macbook Airs before riding the glass elevator to the iPhone floor. Harnessing every ounce of self-control in my bones, I eventually agreed to leave and continue home.

New ‘Worst DressedMan on the Ginza.

Rather than eat out tonight – Pip and Eams hit the local supermarket for a couple of bento boxes and some breadcrumbed delights, which we combined with the nine cherry tomatoes I had purchased in one of the food halls we visited earlier in the day, and the two large tomatoes bought in another (it was the taste testing that forced me to buy them – they just tasted unlike any tomatoes I had ever eaten.

Hope the Hilton folk don’t mind the multiple bags of rubbish we left for them…

Something in the Way it Moves

Our first full day in Tokyo. Where to start? We thought coffee. Cafe Rie in the arcade under the hotel looked nice. It also had a logo that looked like Starbucks. Here began our language fun. First sign – yes, they had an espresso machine. Ordered a capuccino, a latte and an iced cocoa trying to keep it simple. Let’s just say the experience was unsatisfying from a caffeinated beverage perspective to say the least.

Some food hall delights…

We returned to the hotel lobby (don’t you just love saying lobby) to catch the complimentary shuttle to the Shinjuku station, which I’ve read is the busiest station in the world with more than a million passengers daily. Our bus dropped us at the west entrance and we stumbled out into the masses and were kind of swept along and into the Keio Department Store, where we followed our noses and ended up in the food hall. I need to stop here and wipe a tear from my eye.

We were overcome. The range of food, both prepared and not, was astounding. We had never seen anything like it. From french patisserie to marbled beef. From $100 rock melons to delicate chocolates. Fish, beans, sushi, dumplings, buns, rice, oil, sake, wine, sweets, biscuits, cakes… all presented beautifully and each with a separate counter and an army of uniformed staff bowing and greeting each customer. The staff we watched as they disappeared into the store room, stopped and turned to the store – bowed, then went through the door. They all did the same as they returned. I bought a couple of huge breaded fried prawns (ebi furai), while Eams and Pip opted for steamed dumplings. We then needed a place to eat them. We saw hundreds of people buying food, but not one eating any. We hid in a corner behind a cab rank and scoffed the delicious bites.

Food Hall

We had already decided to spend the day seeing how things worked and finding our feet and had no particular destination or activities planned. So we basically hung around Shinjuku and the surrounding areas, watching and learning. By mid afternoon we were cursing the abject coffee poverty of Shinjuku and found a nice looking little cafe with a logo that looked like Starbucks and a man who nodded wildly when we said espresso. My latte reminded me of camping in my youth – you know that taste of evaporated milk… Pip’s long black tasted like strong instant coffee. This is gonna be a long week from a coffee perspective. Home for a nanna nap and then, about 5, headed out for dinner. 

more food hall

Pip’s research had us headed for Kabuki-cho a kind of seedy, girly-bar and tiny restaurant area with clean streets. We managed to get there – it wasn’t far from some of the spots we had visited earlier in the day – and it was certainly worth it. Hundreds of tiny restaurants with their plastic fare in front of their shops. I don’t know how we came to choose the one we did – but we ended up in a smallish room up a narrow staircase. No sign of any english speaking anything – most customers were men in suits who were smoking as they ate – older men were waiting the tables and there was no where to stash our coats as we crammed around a tiny table. Menus arrived, fortunately with pictures, as we scanned the room for hints. As there were a number of people eating nabe, we decided that table cooking in a clay pot was the way for us to go as well (pointing enthusiastically to a picture of a pile of vegetables and fishy bits and holding up three fingers while we said “san”). 

Our host.

Fortunately, as it turned out, the man made gestures that indicated to us, nabe for two might be better, especially as we also ordered tempura and yakitori chicken. All was going well, tempura-ed things were fanstastic; chicken was excellent; large plate of raw vegetables and seafood dutifully delivered. While planning an approach, I thought I saw something on the plate move. Eamon drew a protective chopstick and we three of us stared at the plate till it moved again. Damn scallops were flexing their muscles and flicking the bits on top of them about. Pot of broth for them. Once we’d murdered the scallops, the already dead stuff was a cinch.

Sea Critters and the like.

Apart from the flinching scallops, there were mussels, white fish, salmon, some chicken, enoki mushrooms, piles of cabbage and a choy of some sort, two huge whole prawns and half a crab, a huge block of tofu, daikon and glass noodles. We piled it all into the pot and presto! Needless to say those damn scallops were stunningly sweet and fresh.

Nabe cook extraordinaire

We left the restaurant, all smoky and full and headed back to the shuttle bus stop at Shinjuku station. A business looking man accosted us near the station, explaining in japlish that he had overdone the sake because he had just become a grandfather – this we figured by the picture of a newborn baby he was showing us on his phone. Much hand-shaking, well-wishing and bowing later, he staggered off into the dark and we staggered off toward the bus stop.

Take a Long Line

Having done a fair part of the clean-up after the family left after Christmas Lunch, we set about packing and washing and trying to remember everything at about 9pm. After collapsing at around 11, we rose at about 4 to catch a cab at about 5:45 to get to the airport at about 6 for our flight at about 7:25.

Our cab pulled in to the airport ahead of the DaRins, a family we know from New Farm who were on the same flights as we were. Thanks to the queues ahead, we saw more of them today than we have in the last 12 months.
First security check point and Eamon is hauled aside to have his bag searched. ‘They’ say he has a knife – I say “Huh?”. Seems he thought that tiny little leatherman tool with the folding 3cm blade might be useful in our travels. The nice security guards agreed not to drop it into the pit of confiscated weaponry until I could race to the newsagent and buy an envelope and stamps and post it back to ourselves. Geesh – good start and followed by a trip to Gate 45 when Gate 29 was we were s’posed to be. Then the queuing began.
The vast blue expanses of Cairns International

Second security checkpoint and Eamon is hauled aside to bag his deodorant into clear plastic, in case there’s a liquid bomb in it. Thank god they didn’t confiscate that or there would have an international odour incident.

Now ex-queues me, but it seems that the concept of budget airline includes a hefty dose of standing inline waiting for things. We stood in line stood and waited to check in at 6am in the morning. We stood in line to board the plane to Cairns, then queued on the steps after walking across the tarmac, then queued in the aisle of the plane. These were not those little queues you get when a backlog builds up, rather the long and boring stand around while folk get their acts together kind of queues.
First glimpse of Tokyo: Obligatory shot
through bus window.

Naturally we then queued to get off the plane and then waited to collect our luggage and then, cruelly we thought, were marched out into the thick Cairns atmosphere – melting in our northern hemisphere winter clothes and surrounded by young people in singlets and thongs hauling snow skis and snow boards as we paraded the 330m to the International terminal where we were faced with the longest and slowest queue of the day, close to 1.5 hours going up and down the races. Our plan had been to avoid the exorbitant budget airline charges for meals by having a good lunch in Cairns prior to boarding for Narita. Sadly, only two food outlets were open – one selling crap burgers and chips and another, crap sandwiches and both with queues about as long as the time we had left after the last queue.

Don’t remember too much queuing at the Cairns departure point – but we had a rather comfortable flight, albeit a little delayed, and a relatively easy progression through emigration and customs. Had enough time before the bus to grab a Hot Dog
– German Dog Set and for Pip and Eamon to grab a quick Katsu box, before our 70 minute bus trip to the hotel.
I’m typing this from the 27th floor of the Hilton in Shinjuku – fabulous view from our large window and it’s about 11:30pm local time. I’m stuffed.

Quote of the day: Please refrain from using your mobile telephone on the bus as it will disturb the neighbours.

OK, it’s time for sayonara

Christmas lunch

Christmas can be said to be done and dusted. We carefully chose to make today a luncheon event rather than an evening one – a bit more pressure early on, but as I write it’s just after 10pm and only the house guests are left. The mess is not exactly cleaned up, but there is a plan for it to be dealt with. The quiet music is playing (Hermitude) and I’m thinking about packing. The other two are packed-ish and the taxi is ordered for 5:45am. 

Today was a roaring success – the Spanish Theme was roundly lauded and the goat…! What a delicious meat. A bit like lamb but not as rich or fatty. The char-grilled sardines tasted like the ocean and were fabulous as were the mussels. The homemade ice-cream and orange cake doused in sherry rounded off a day of culinary excess and, fortunately, great fun. Only casualty of the day was the oven which gave up just prior to completing the potatoes which required a quick transfer to the BBQ to be finished off.

Sardines from heaven…

I should really stop typing now and go and pack a bag for 10 days overseas. Have already got the passports safely tucked in my satchel to avoid a repeat of the last minute dash home.

Talk to you from Japan.

You can’t always get what you want.

Iluka Bowls Club – Busy Day

Japan wasn’t high on our list of destinations. We had determined that due to last year’s ‘best holiday ever’ stint in Venice, we would aim at something a little more local – something like a week or two at the beach. Now despite my hatred of the beach, I was all for a relaxing time by the sea.

It didn’t take long too establish that the cost of accommodation was going to exceed the total cost of our five weeks in Venice. For me, a quote of $5,000 dollars for 12 days in a two bedroom flat in Iluka (near Yamba) was all the spark I needed to be open to Pip’s suggestion of looking abroad. Come to think of it, Pip had all the costs very close at hand when the Iluka quote came in… 

Still, and absolutely ridiculously, the cost of three return air fares to Tokyo and a week in a hotel was the same as some dodgy gaf in Yamba. Once you’ve had tea at the Iluka Bowls Club, or the RSL or the Leagues, or whatever the local pokie hole is – that’s it.

We weighed it up – Iluka Tokyo – Iluka Tokyo. It wasn’t long before the hand holding Iluka was down near the waist and the Tokyo hand was up near the head.

1-10 covered

So despite the fact that the airline would be a budget one with a Star in it’s name – we’re off to the Orient. This trip is vastly different to any we’ve undertaken before. Our preparation is rushed. Our minds have not been turned towards Japan as much as they should have. We’re having Christmas lunch for 22 at our house the day before we leave and we’re both working till Christmas Eve.

Eamon, our son, will be our saviour though. He got an ‘A’ for his first semester of Japanese so, as long as we only buy stuff that costs 10 or less and only need to greet people with our names, we’ll be fine!

Hurry on Boxing Day!