Archive for February, 2012

I Made A Video

For my band’s (The Kitchen Quartet) cover of Ivor Cutler’s song “Everybody Got”

No food produce was harmed in the making of this video. But I did eat the eggs after.

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Electric (conserving) Town!

As you can see from this Tokyo Metro map, Tokyo is a mega city. Like London, but perhaps even more distinctly, Tokyo is a massive metropolis made up of several small cities, each with their own identity, all smooshed together.

On our 1st full day in Tokyo we planned to do what everyone should do when they visit Tokyo – go to the Tsukiji fish market but due to the earthquake the tuna auction was not open to tourists and due to our late night sake fun-times, we were not up early enough to make it anyway. Armed with our Pasmos, JR passes and loads of Yen, we set out to visit Akihabara.

Akihabara Electric Town is famous for electronics and manga/anime shops. Luke had a request to buy a specific camera (a Nikon Coolpix) if if was available for a certain price. The 1st place we went had it, we bought it and the guy did an enormo bow at the end of the transaction. I like this type of capitalism.

Now, our host had declared Tokyo a “ghost town” but this photo shows what that means to a Tokyoite. It means there’s still bloody LOADS of people around.

Due to all the electricity conservation – all the shop signs and adverts were off everywhere. In a place like Akihabara, it resulted in a weird vibe. A bit like a nightclub in the daytime.

Luke saw a girl promoting something while wearing big cartoony animal gloves. He regrets not buying them. TOP TIP! Buy anything you think you really want at the time. You will not regret it.

We then headed off to the Imperial Palace. We thought we found it but it turned out it was just a very clean car park. As we’d ended up quite close to Ginza we decided to have lunch there.

Ginza is the luxury shopping district of Tokyo. There are department stores where they’ll use liquid nitrogen to keep your box of fruit fresh, so I hear. We didn’t have the funds to see if that was true as most things in the Ginza stores are maxi pricey.

It had started to rain so we dashed into a store basement where we found ourselves in a food hall. We sat down at a Japanese curry place and had a reasonably priced lunch without being able to read the menu. The exchange went a bit like this “curry?” (curry in Japanese is kare) “curry” “two?” “two”. I think it cost us about £15 for both of us.

The rain had eased as we made our way back to the Imperial Palace.  Tokyo has this incredible ability to switch rapidly between buzzing, urban metropolis to calm, ancient serenity.

The Imperial Palace East Gardens (free to the public) really illuminate that juxtaposition.

In the evening we met with a load of K’s friends in an Izakaya in Omotesando.

Having some people you know when visiting Japan can make the whole experience approx 98675 times more brilliant.It may even be worth attempting to find a pen pal in Tokyo who can show you around and order all the best stuff for you.

the fish shape is just a garnish.

In the izakaya we sat back and said “we’ll have anything” and we let the locals order for us. An izakaya is a sort of Japanese tapas bar, they serve beers (in this one the beers were poured by machines! argh! the future!) and small dishes. One thing I love about dining in Japan is how to get service. Instead of the European custom of embarrassingly attempting to get your server’s eye you just shout “SUMIMASEN!” It’s awesome.

After some takowasabi (spicy raw octopus), other mystery foods and many beers we headed off to a swish bar in Shibuya which was full of Gaijin ex-pats. It seems this is where all the westerners had been hiding – we still hadn’t seen any out on the streets of Tokyo.

Another example of the electricity saving in this night photo of Shibuya, which usually is bright enough to induce migraines. A few expensive cocktails down and then we were a drunken bunch swerving over east Tokyo looking for some place to drink. I remember some place called the Enjoybar in Ebisu, another called the Absinthebar and then a taxi back home with our constantly amiable host (who again had work the next day – she is INCREDIBLE) long after the trains had stopped for the night.

Nadia-san Hits Tokyo Town.

The shinkansen is really the Rolls Royce of train travel.

You can get a reservation (you might as well if you have a JR Pass) up to the few minutes before the train arrives. Your ticket will show your reservation and the platform has lines painted on it to show you where to stand to get on the train at the exact place to find your seats.

Inside it is spacious and sort of calm. It has a feeling a bit like being on a plane. There’s loads of leg room but not many places for big luggage. You could easily store a small suitcase in the space between you and the next seat, though. There’s a vending machine somewhere on the train and also a trolley service. Some trains even have a smoking carriage, which to my smoke-ban British sensibilities seems CRAZY. My favourite bit was the person whose job seemingly is to walk through each carriage, turn to face all the passengers (remember the seats all face the direction of travel) and do a bow before going off to bow at the next carriage. I loved that person.

I wanted to test the claim that the bullet trains are so punctual one could set one’s watch by them. So at each station I looked at the board on the platform to see what time it was due to leave and every single time the train left within 15 seconds of that time. AMAZING.

The train goes very, very fast. The scenery tends to be very developed the whole way. I think much of Japan is developed because of its geology. As far as I can tell, long island = mountains in the middle = building most of the stuff around the edges.

This is a typical view from the train. The green net thing is a golf driving range. As space is at such a premium in Japan you’ll often see these golf ranges on top of buildings. Crazy fun.

We hurtled towards Tokyo with our milk and instructions to meet our host at the “statue of a dog” at Shibuya station.

We arrived into Tokyo, and headed straight for Shibuya on the JR Yamanote line (so no need to buy any further tickets). The only evidence of the country’s largest ever earthquake and impending nuclear doom was the lack of gaijin, and a few train services which were cancelled “due to earthquake”. A considerably better excuse than “signal failure” (I’m looking at you, TfL.)

Shibuya crossing is one of the most famous images of Japan/Tokyo. A buzzing, bright, flashing example of the mega-tropolis that is Tokyo.

Due to the earthquake and the power station troubles, electricity conservation was being strictly adhered to in Tokyo. When we arrived, this is what Shibuya looked like:

Obviously it was in the day time but none of the screens were on and all the advertising lights were off.

And still, we could see no western people. Our blond-haired Dutch friend would be incredibly easy to spot.

We had a bit of time to kill so we wandered over to the Starbucks (you can see in the shiny photo) to get a coffee.

Not as easy as you’d imagine! Japanese love their coffee cold, so you have to specify ‘hot’ if you want a hot coffee. All the sugars are liquid sucrose sachets because of this. Small differences, but so weird. And then the whole place was a crazy, cacophonous melee & our first encounter with the high pitch that Japanese ladies vocally favour.

Coffees in hand we went to find the “dog statue” where we were to meet our host. I found a mural on a wall with some dogs on it and assumed that was it. Within a few minutes my face obviously giving off a “not sure if this is right” vibe, some lovely girls approached us and asked if we needed any help. I said something along the lines of us being ok, but then I said (literally, this is exactly what I said) “something about a dog?” to which they went “ahhh” and took us around a corner to where there was a big statue of a dog. The Hachiko dog, in fact.

Helpful, lovely people!

Our friend arrives, we have some mega hugs, and she decides we should hang around and wait for the rush hour to calm down before heading home. A short walk from where we were stood waiting for her is a teeny street I think called Nonbei Yokocho. It is lined with the dwttyest bars I’ve ever seen.

We went to a bar that could seat 4 people. I think this is the one. Katie seemed to know the bartender, who spoke very good English. But she’s so gregarious it sometimes seems she knows everyone on the Earth. We had a few Asahis in this tiny bar and the chat was mostly about the exodus of Westerners from Tokyo, now termed ‘flyjin‘. I loved this tiny bar. If we weren’t with Katie we would never have a)found it b)had the confidence to go in. It felt like Japanese people may have been drinking beer in this tiny booze den for hundreds of years. Another place I had this cozy, local feeling in was the Bar Al Campanile in Venice which doesn’t even have chairs but does serve a killer spritz.

Katie gave us a Pasmo each and handed me a moleskin with useful stuff in.

The useful stuff included a quick guide for use in case of quake/tsunami/fallout. Note the important last step.

The drinking of beer was very much a “survival technique” employed by us during our time in quake-hit Tokyo.

We headed to Katie’s amazing Tokyo home, stopping at a shop to get some things for dinner where we bumped into her dad doing the same thing. Only Katie & her dad were still in Japan as her mother & sister had flown home to escape the quake/nuclear problems (pah! flyjin!). Fresh fruit and veg were thin on the ground in the shop (figuratively, I mean – they were actually displayed hygienically in boxes) and instant ramen was looking sparse as well as there being no milk.

Papa Katie made us dinner before we headed out for a “nightcap” at a sake bar up the road.

Now, I don’t remember taking these photos, but evidently I did.

We tried a variety of sakes and I do remember enjoying a cloudy one.

Also, I remember they gave us free nibbles.

Then, I think we bought a Crunky each from the shop on the way home at approx 3am. 24 hour convenience shops FTW.

And then, as we stumbled into our bedroom, another reminder of the curious situation we found ourselves in – some face masks left for us in case of emergency.

Takoyaki!

We pulled into Shin-Osaka station and alighted at about 7pm, a little while after rush hour. It was still very busy.

The furthest east I’d been before this trip was Baghdad. 

That’s about 4000 miles from Japan, and about 3000 miles from London. Japan is very literally the Far East. Having been in transit for about a day and having crossed about 9 different time zones I was feeling pretty discombobulated already. Add to that being in Japan – a country that feels like it could be another planet, and I was feeling VERY discombobulated.*

What I’m trying to say is that is took us 45 minutes to find the right exit out of the station. I had printed out a map from the hostel we were staying in and eventually we managed to find our way to it. It was a 20/25 minute walk from Shin-Osaka station in the dark, so we felt pretty pleased about how we were dealing well with everything despite not being able to understand ANYTHING. When you travel in Europe (or any place that has Latin or Germanic-based languages), you can figure out what things mean as you can read the text. Not in Japan!  A typical exchange when trying to find directions: “What does it say?” “It says house with eyebrows on top, next to wiggly squiggle with legs coming out of it.”

We found ourselves here, the lovely Caminoro hostel in the area of Mikuni. It is run by a couple who have THE CUTEST BABY ON EARTH. They speak excellent English (and Spanish!), and are marvellously friendly & helpful.

We were jet lagged and exhausted so just went straight to bed. We booked the private Japanese style tatami mat room. Hey – we’re in Japan, why the hell would you not choose all the mega Japanese options?

The room was pretty dwtty. It had a little table with two chairs (are they chairs? they don’t have legs), a small dresser and all the bedding in the corner. So we transformed our little room from a living space to a sleeping space and it was lovely. I find sleeping on a futon very comfortable and I had such a wonderful sleep.

In the morning we were given a little map of the area and told places we could get breakfast.

We ventured out to the covered shopping street that we were staying on. This was properly Osakan and not touristy in any way. Though this was TERRIFYING it was also a pure thrill of feeling being thrown in at the deep end.

We found a tiny cafe type place and pointed at some photos of toast and coffee on a menu. Toast in Japan is about an inch thick. Why do they do so many things better than we do? We felt smug with ourselves for having got this far, then freaked out about how we were supposed to pay. TOP TIP: In Japan, the usual thing is to ask for the bill and then go up to a counter near the door to pay after they give you the bill.

TOP TIP: DO NOT TIP! Tipping is not a thing in Japan. If you leave a tip the staff are likely to run after you with it shouting ‘you forgot your change!’ The only place you might tip is in a Ryokan.

After totally smashing the getting breakfast thing we thought we might take a quick trip into central Osaka to have a quick look before heading to the station to catch the bullet train to Tokyo. We went to the nearest subway station. We spent 15 minutes looking at the tube map which had zero romanji on it, and poking the ticket machine which was also 100% in Japanese. Then we gave up and went back to the hostel to collect our stuff.

Me & Luke 1,  Japan 1.

There was no evidence of the enormous tragedy that was ongoing to the North except that my friend asked us to buy milk and bring it to Tokyo as it was difficult to buy there. Imagine not being able to buy milk in London. The entire country would collapse without all those cups of tea. (I’ll explain the dog thing in the next blog).

The walk back to Shin-Osaka station was much easier in the daylight and we got there in time for the bustling lunchtime trade. We reserved some seats on the 13.40 to Tokyo and embarked on the overwhelming act of choosing which place to have lunch at as there are about 40 different small restaurants in Shin-Osaka station. I tweeted asking what we should have and immediately  Josie Long & Chris Coltrane shouted the word “TAKOYAKI” at me.

typical plastic food outside a restaurant

Many, many restaurants in Japan have plastic food models of the dishes they serve displayed outside the restaurant. They are INCREDIBLY realistic. Very helpful if you can’t read a menu, and they let you know what type of cuisine the restaurant deals with.

I found us a takoyaki restaurant (in Japan, restaurants tend to specialise in one type of food. eg. ramen shop, sushi place etc). The prices seemed pretty reasonable so I opted for a set meal which included a beer, and Luke pointed at one which didn’t have a picture of a beer on it.

It’s possible we ordered too much. I don’t know what a sensible portion is. I do know that these delicious octopus dumplings have driven me wild with cravings ever since. Meg Prosser described them as “profiteroles of the sea” and they really are tremendously lovely. I am saving up to buy this from the Japan Centre. If you feel like generously donating to the Nadia Kamil Takoyaki Fund, please feel free. As a reward I will make you takoyaki whilst wearing the colour of your choice. What a deal!

The 1st thing they gave us when we sat down in the restaurant were some hot towels. In Japan you will often see this. It’s customary to wash your hands before your meal. Don’t save them at the side til the end like we did. We must’ve looked like right fannies. Fannies with filthy fingers they must’ve thought us.

A second successful meal and we left to find our platform to await the shinkansen to Tokyo.

*discombobulated twice in one blog? Oh yes, team, get on board.