Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf. In an air-conditioned showroom!

After breakfast in Tsukiji, the boyz and I waddled our way through the Ginza, where we took a brief respite from the mugginess in the air conditioning of a Nissan showroom where we pretended to take interest in a prototype electric three-seater that was on display. We jumped on the Yamanote line north to Ueno and explored the Ameyoko market area between the Ueno and Okachimachi stations. This was at one point the district where American black market items were sold (hence the name, which means “America town”), but now it’s the place to buy kitchy shit and youth-culture accoutrements at cheaper prices than elsewhere in Tokyo. It’s also a popular spot with gamers and pachinko addicts, and I hear there are lots of drunken salarymen whooping it up in the after-work hours (which in Japan may start anywhere between 5 pm and midnight–workaholism here is highly encouraged).

Hachiko

statue of the Akita dog that returned to Shibuya station every day for years to wait for his (dead) master to return from work

We took the Yamanote back in the clockwise direction (it’s a loop) to Shibuya, where we visited Hachiko’s statue and the Apple store, because I wanted to find out why my iPad was picking up a wifi server called “free public access” on trains, but I still was not being allowed to connect to the Internet. Apparently, its not a problem with my pad or my settings but rather it’s just that there really is no free public wifi in trains.

Harajuku

The street's name is really "Takeshita," not "Take Shit"

After the boyz and I checked email and updated our facebook statuses, we got back on the Yamanote to Harajuku, the scene (and every other kind of weird) kid mecca of Japan. The boyz found a place that sells the coolest T-shirts on the planet. We got in line for an Internet cafe-type place (Wired 360) for a chilled beverage and freespot access but bailed when we figured out that the whole place was “smoking,” opting instead for a chilled beverage purchased from a vending machine on the famous Takeshita street (which my classy sons refer to as “take shit” street).

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SushiDai@Tsukiji.Jp

06/08/2010

maguro

Bluefin tuna. Buyers evaluate the quality of the whole fish from a section made near the caudal peduncle

‘Kay. The Tsukiji market is the place where much of the remaining biomass of the species Thunnus thunnus will end up, their frozen carcasses auctioned away to highest bidders, band-sawed into blocks small enough to be handled by your average man, to be subsequently distributed to chefs, home cooks, and eaters across this country as well as abroad (including the U.S.). There is a shrine here to the fishing god (presumably), but it might as well be a monument to rankaku, which is the Japanese term for overfishing, and one of the few words in my very limited Japanese vocabulary. Uttering this word at Tsukiji would likely to get me into a fistfight.

Tsukiji

Sushi Dai is located right where the inner open market area (right) borders with the closed fish brokerage area (left)

The stalls in the two open markets here (the auction area itself is now closed to the public) sell many of the things you’d find in other markets (at least in Japan), but there is a distinct emphasis on fish (but not sport fishing): fresh fish, semi-dried fish, fully dried fish, salted and cured fish entrails (shiokara, which is salty but surprisingly not disgusting), dried baby fish, fish cured in miso or sake lees, stuff to prepare dead fish for the table (I bought a fish scaler) as well as insidious-looking implements for properly bleeding and dispatching live fish before they ruin their own flesh–chemically with blood-borne stress hormones and proteolytic enzymes and mechanically by flopping on the deck of the fishing boat.

Sushi Dai

Looking in from the storefront window what you see is the entire restaurant: three chefs, two waitresses, and eleven customers

Tsukiji is also home to the world’s most popular sushi joints, and Sushi Dai is the one recommended by my nephew Noah who’s been here a few times. Its hours are 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., and it is generally recommended that arrival before the place opens will minimize the wait time. We got there shortly after seven and were seated by 8:45, though the first hour of that wait took place in the unshaded side of the market (the restaurant provided umbrellas for a select few, but not us), and with summer temps in the thirties (Celsius) and humidity around 80%, this was rather unbearable. I think there are all of eleven seats in the joint (all along the sushi bar) and the line moves slowly. We let Adri off easy–she sat in the shade the whole time while us boys waited and held her place in line.

Why, you ask? For me, I wanted a standard against which to compare all sushi I have eaten before and will eat in the heretofore. We ordered the omakase meal for four, which is ten pieces of nigirizushi (actually one of these courses consisted of four bites of mini-rolls), plus one selected by the diner. The meal went something like this: 1) chutoro (semi-fatty tuna belly), 2) some kind of small white-fleshed fish whose name I didn’t recognize, 3) uni (sea urchin ovaries), 4) shino-aji (lightly vinegared spanish jack), 5) ama-ebi (raw shrimp), 6) tachi-uo (knife fish), 7) anago (sea eel), 8) mini rolls (two pieces each of kappomaki and tekkamaki), 9) hokkigai (Sakahlin surf clam, still alive and moving), 10) red maguro (lean tuna muscle from the back quarter) with a soy glaze. For the extra piece I got ootoro (very fatty tuna belly), Adri uni, and Sharkey got tachi-uo. All in all, it was not very much food (and at 3,900 yen per head, this would be the most expensive meal we had our entire stay in Japan). If not for the fact that I got to eat all of Ryo’s sushi, I would still have been very hungry afterwards–and even with seconds on everything I was only just satisfied. (I generously ceded Ryo’s extra piece to Sharkey.)

Sushi Dai, after

After our meal. If Ryo looks hungry, it's because he didn't eat anything at all during the meal.

How good was it? The whole point of getting sushi at Dai is that the ingredients are the best available anywhere as is the skill of the chefs–which means that the rice is prepared and seasoned perfectly and served at exactly the right temperature to optimize the flavor of the fish, and the nigirizushi are made with exactly the right hand pressure to hold their form without being overpacked and with the ideal balance of rice, fish, and wasabi (freshly grated from real wasabi root, which is just not available in the states).

It was very good sushi. I didn’t care for the soy-glazed tuna–the flavor of soy sauce was overpowering. The mini rolls were nothing special. But everything else was excellent. I really didn’t learn much from the experience, though. I can appreciate the exceptional skill of the sushi chefs at Dai. The proper use of real wasabi is probably what will stand out the most in my memory of this meal.

Seafood at Uroko

04/08/2010

After having scanned hundreds of eateries in Japan during my pre-vacation research, this was the one restaurant I absolutely had to visit. Conveniently for us, it is located a stone’s throw from the Nakano station–right on the way back to Shinjuku from Mitaka, where we just spent the late afternoon visiting with our friend, Totoro.

From the outside, the corner shop looks part fish market, part pottery studio with a kiln a-blazing, but we get quickly whisked into the dining room with zashiki-style seating and (mercifully, for me) wells for legs. And oh yeah, this means shoes off before your feet go into the well.

The dude-waiter pulls several white-hot cooking stones from the kiln–I’m pretty sure that these are ceramic posts used to support the shelves that hold pottery during firing–covering the bottom of the hibachi that he brings to the table. Using these stones means that there is no problem of ashes flying when the food starts to drip. A wire grate over the stones provides the cooking surface.

Our order for table grilling: one tuna collar, two tuna cheeks, two sardines, one black abalone, two turban shells (sazae), four clams, three gigantic oysters, two scallops, two skewers of squid legs. The tuna collar takes the longest to cook, and it goes on the grill first. The sazae and abalone go on, shell side down–and yes, they are still alive. A soy-based cooking sauce is added to the shellfish and the waiting staff keeps a watchful eye on our food to make sure that we don’t overcook the abalone (which would be a tragedy!). The oysters come open, but the other bivalves (clams and scallops) cook in their shells. The adductor muscle detaches first from the down side because of their more direct exposure to the heat, so after the valves open they can be flipped and the special sauce added while the other side cooks a bit.

The food at this place is seriously, ridiculously, insanely good.

A whole morning of being herded around Tokyo’s most uninteresting monuments by a dutifully cheerful (but semi transparently dour) guide was more than enough.

At the Tokyo JR station, we exchanged our vouchers for passes (this takes a bit of time with forms to fill out and passports to check). Our first experience with rail travel in Japan was really impressive, as finding the right track was easy (provided one knows which line and in which direction one wants), and the right train was waiting for us when we got to the platform. Our destination, the Ghibli Studios museum, is out in the western suburb of Mitaka, which is right on the Chuo line. We could have figured this out by looking at the maps at the station, but I happened to be carrying my own route map on my iPad. へ, へへ.

The Ghibli Studios museum is all about the works of Hiyao Miyazaki, the great manga/anime artist who created film masterpieces like Princess Mononoke, Totoro, and Spirited Away. Another of my favorites that I have not seen in animated form is Nausicaa. There’s also House-Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Ponyo, but I may be getting into the blurry area between Miyazaki Hiyao’s work vs. that of his various protoges including his son, with whom family and professional relations are not entirely peachy. But really, one is either familiar with Miyazaki’s work or one is missing out on some truly thoughtful animation. This ain’t exactly Looney Tunes (though there is great looniness as well!).

The place is set up on multiple levels with a little movie theater (screening a Miyazaki short I haven’t seen before–might have been created specifically for the museum), interactive animation displays, rooms set up like the animator’s actual workspace, complete with urns filled with colored pencils that became too short to use and gigantic ashtrays filled with butts (yeah, I think that part was gross and something kids could do without having to see). And lots of Miyazaki’s drawings on the walls. And spiral staircases. There is a playpen for little ones based on the cat bus from Totoro (lots of warm and plushy goodness). If you’re familiar with the Disney parks, it’s kind of like a hybrid of Tarzan’s treehouse and the Sorcerer’s Workshop. No photos allowed inside. I saw one guy get busted for wielding his digital (I kept mine holstered, except for the rooftop where I took a coupla pics with the iron giant (which I remembered but couldn’t place in a Miyazaki film).

Tokyo morning tour

04/08/2010

A little adventure before the tour even started. After getting on the tour bus I realize that we would never be returning to Shinjuku but rather getting left in Ginza, which is actually a good departure point for our afternoon trip to Mitaka. The sucky part was that I had left the JR pass vouchers in the hotel room, whinch means that I had to jump out of the bus, run back to get the vouchers, and take a taxi across town (to Tokyo) to the Daiichi hotel where I could meet up with the bus. All to take part in a whole bunch of touristy shit that I could have done without. So it goes.

Anyways, there were obligatory stops at Tokyo tower, the Shinto shrine near Ometesando, and a park that is sort of adjacent to the feed lot of the imperial livestock (or something like that). Really quite uninteresting at best. Did you know that Shinto craftsmen fashioned the Tori gates out of three thousand year old cypress trees? Deep respect for nature my ass.

People here have been pretty nice so far, considering the linguistic obstacles (I don’t understand them, they don’t understand me–everyone smiles a lot). Adriana has been disturbed on two occasions by what appears to be an expectation that women defer to males. At LAX, the ticketing agent addressed only me directly, even though Adri was doing most of the talking from our side (but that would reflect on Singapore, not Japan). At hotel check in here, we found that the two room reservations were under my name and my sixteen-year-old son’s name (leaving the mom out entirely). Poofters.

Really, the most intimidating bit of Japan so far has been the toilet in our hotel room. It “wakes up” with a mini-flush when it detects weight on the seat, and this was already mildly distressing for Shark. There’s also a rather complicated control panel on the side, from which the user controls this robotic arm that extends from the back of the unit and sprays the user’s bottom with a jet of warm (yes, I tried it) water.


The early a.m. accommodations for jet-laggy tourists are also less than ideal. Ryo was up at four, and by five-thirty he and Adri and I were out looking for a coffee shop with free wifi. First two coffee joints we came to didn’t open until seven, and Adri gave up and went back to the hotel to their continental breakfast. Ryo and I walked around some.

The buildings here are pretty impressive (yeh, I’m not supposed to care about stuff like that…) as are the vending machines, from which my son bought his breakfast–a diet Pepsi, which isn’t very good in its Japanese manifestation. The Yoshinoya chain and a few other shops were open for Japanese-style breakfast of rice, pickles, fish, and miso shiru. But no coffee. I know there’s a Starbucks in this area, and I might just have to resort to that if I ever need an early morning fix (other than the vending machine “fire” coffee in cans).

Shinjuku, night one

04/08/2010

Flight across the Pacific was pleasantly uneventful (and actually a bit shorter than LA to Europe), and the airport staff at Narita was very adequately able at communicating with English-speaking foreigners. Airport Limousine bus (included in our Singapore AL package) was departing shortly after we retrieved our schleppage, and so we were whisked the final 60 km to Shinjuku. Tokyo’s a big place, and you can’t really tell people that you’re staying “in Tokyo” unless you are actually in the Tokyo ward, which is on the opposite side of the city center and a few train stops away from where we are.

Adri and Ryo were both zonkered from the trip and just wanted to collapse in the hotel room. Adri is convinced that hotel minibars are ripoffs, and so she sent me out to get water (preferably carbonated mineral water. Italians.) and while I was at the seven-eleven I got them a couple of pastries as well. One looked like a Mexican pan dulce.

Sharkey and I went out looking for the gyoza shop near Shinjuku station that I have pin-pointed on my CW map. But wait, I don’t have Internet and I’m not going to pay the twenty bucks per 24 hours of wireless the hotel is charging, so I can’t access this map. But it’s A) famous and B) close to the station, so how hard can it be to find?

Well to start with there is no above-ground train station to walk in and out of, so we were probably walking right over the station (which is a huge place, I hear) while we were looking for the station’s east entrance–the one closest to the hotel. We did find the well-lit and somewhat glitzy mostly-pedestrian area packed with foreigners and salarymen and we looked around for a gyoza shop either from the pictures posted outside or by the kanji I have recently learned (餃子屋–says “gyoza ya”). I even asked several people for directions to the best gyoza shop (ichiban gyoza ya), and they pretty much all had the same reaction–something to he tune of (as well as I could make out) “they have gyoza at that place over there” and/or “I’ve never heard of a place that specializes in gyoza.” This seems kind of preposterous to me, having just read an installment of Oishimbo that focused on the various (chain vs. non-chain) gyoza shops of Tokyo. We never found the place we were looking for, and it became clear that my linguistic skills were not going to be of much use.

After a few circuits through this eatery-laden ped zone, we settled on a place that had both gyoza and yakitori. Shark and I split an order of gyoza (1000 yen for a large–roughly double–order) and two skewers each of pork neck (220 yen each), chicken hearts and chicken skin (180). It was all excellent.