Shabu Shabu

On Saturday night we went to Katie’s favourite restaurant. A shabu shabu restaurant in Sakura-shimachi. Shabu shabu is a great meal. It’s a sort of hot pot type thing where you cook everything yourself at your own table. The hob is built into the table because, as I mentioned earlier, most restaurants in Japan specialise in one type of cuisine, so this place is pretty confident that every customer who comes in will want shabu shabu at their table. Our pot was split in two and we had a clear broth and a creamy (I think rice-based) broth. You choose what you want in your shabu shabu (beef, pork, fish, veg etc) and you then have 90 minutes to eat as much of it as you can. A lot of places have time limited all-you-can-eat/drink deals. This is because Japanese people are not as horrifically greedy as us Westerners and don’t seem to take the all-you-can-consume offer as some demented challenge. I don’t know about you but I find it very hard to leave an all-you-can-eat buffet before the point where I feel physically ill because I’ve eaten way more than I could ever comfortably fit inside my digestive system. It’s a combination of greed and my overwhelming sense of good value. If I pay £11 for an all-you-can-eat buffet, I want to make sure I eat way more than £11 worth of food, even if it makes me really unwell. I CAN’T STOP THIS.

Anyway, we had 90 minutes. You get the broth bubbling then you add the veg that will take some time to cook or will improve the flavour of the broth (mushrooms, carrots etc). Then you get your thinly sliced meat (we chose beef)and you dip it into the broth for a few seconds to cook, swishing it around. FUN TRIVIA: The name ‘shabu shabu’ comes from the sound you make as you swish the meat in the broth. You then take out your cooked meat and dip in into one of the 2 amazing sauces you get with shabu shabu. One is a ponzu type sauce, sort of soy and citrusy and the other is made from ground sesame seeds and is like a sort of sesame paste. Either way, it is DAMNED DELICIOUS.

When you run out of meat you just shout “sumimasen!” and a waiter will come and replenish your stock. It’s an incredible system. When your 90 minutes is up you can choose either rice or noodles and they’ll bring them to you to soak up what is left of the broth and you end your meal eating noodles and vegetables in broth just in case you weren’t full.

I’m sorry to any vegetarians who read this. You can get a veg version, I think, but I can’t imagine it’s as exciting. But there are plenty of exciting vegetarian things to eat in Japan – worry not! A good idea when you go places is to ask for ‘monk’s food’ as they tend to not eat any meat.

We’ve found a place in London that does a reasonable shabu shabu. It’s here: Sensuru and when you call them they say “hello, Japanese restaurant”. The actual name of the place is a mystery. On one menu inside it has written Suru, Tsenuru, Sensuru and Tsuru in different places. Tsu knows. It’s £16pp and it’s not all you can eat, but it’s not a bad approximation.

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Saturday! (2nd April 2011)

The weekend, hooray. This meant our beautiful host was free to entertain us all day so we set off from Tokyo, using our JR Passes, travelled about 30 miles away on a train and arrived in the lovely small town of Kamakura. Kamakura is a popular day trip for many visitors to Tokyo. It’s a seaside town full of shrines, temples and most impressively, the largest (outdoor) Buddha in the world.

Before paying the big man a visit, we stopped to have lunch in a kaiten sushi (conveyor-belt) sushi restaurant. At midday the place was buzzing. We stood in line and the man in front of us put our names down on the list – he didn’t work there, he was just being nice (standard Japanese behaviour). We didn’t have to wait long before getting seated at a booth. Everybody knows the Japanese love fish. (it’s well documented in this song) At a sushi place, you can really see why. It’s so fresh! So varied! So delicious! So affordable! We ate a lot. Luke ate a sea urchin, which he wasn’t fond of, but the baby squids were amazing.

we ate all these plates and it came to about £30 for all of it.

Luke not enjoying a sea urchin.

After we had gorged on raw fish (can you ever really gorge on something so healthy?) we set off on a little walk to see the big bronze buddha, Daibutsu(Dai? He’s probably Welsh).


He’s big! That’s for sure. It costs 200Y to get in (approx £1.50) to see him. And you can even go INSIDE him, where it is like a massive echoey jelly mould. He’s survived fires, earthquakes and tsunamis. What a hunk. We then went off to see some temples and shrines with lovely gardens and amazing views across the sea.

these are dedications, you pay for a thing and write a prayer on it. Many of them had "play for Japan" written on them. SO ADORABLE. (Ls and Rs are seemingly interchangeable to the Japanese. Luke was often called Ruku)

It’s a very peaceful place. I guess it’s Tokyo’s equivalent of Brighton in a way. A seaside town less than an hour away, perfect for getting away from the hubbub of the big city. I don’t think  Kamakura is particularly renowned for it’s vibrant gay scene though. But relax in the knowledge that Take Out is OK from Woof Curry.

I also enjoyed a bottle of local cider, and tasted my first matcha ice-cream, making it a fully fledged trip to the Japanese seaside. 

We headed back to Tokyo as we had a special Saturday night meal planned, which I shall describe in my next post (oooh….the anticipation).

Happy Birthday, Fluffyman

After our trip through Ameyoko Market we decided to walk to Asakusa, home of Tokyo’s most famous temple. It houses a famously massive lantern. I can assure you, it’s a very big lantern.

On our way there we passed Kappabashi Street.

This is where restaurants buy all their non-food supplies from, including the incredible plastic food displays. The street is quite obviously marked out by a tower of balconies made to look like different coloured coffee cups on one side and an enormous chef’s head on top of the building on the opposite side of the street.

We approached Asakusa

– Tokyo’s ancient entertainment district – in soft spring sunshine. The road leading up to the main temple (Nakamise)  is lined with stalls selling a mixture of local tasty treats and souvenirs from chopsticks and mobile phone charms to kimonos and swords.

At the main temple we bought our fortunes.

This is a thing you can do at most temples. You put your 100Y coin in a slot/box (all unattended, Japanese people are so honest it make my heart sing) then you shake a box that has a lot of sticks in until one comes out of a little hole.

You then match the word/symbol on the stick, to one of the drawers and inside that drawer is your fortune.

My fortune was very good, Luke’s was only OK. If your fortune isn’t great then you can tie it up and let the wind blow away all the bad luck from it.

As we headed home to get changed for the evening we spotted the Golden Turd sparkling near the metro station.

It was our host’s dad’s birthday on April 1st. As Tokyo was still in crisis mode, many people were still out of the city – including most of his family and some friends. So we stepped in. We met Mr Fluffyman (that is what his Dutch name literally translates as) and some of his friends at a bar in Akasaka. (Asakusa and Akasaka all in one day is confusing, I tell thee).

At a fairly standard beer house, we stood around tall tables in a small area spilling our onto the pavements. We gave the birthday boy his gift and he hesitated to open it, having got used to Japanese custom which is to thankfully receive the gift and then open it in private. Being showy Europeans we all demanded  to see him open it and then joy unconfined danced on his face at seeing Wills & Kate in tea-towel form*.

pagoda and lanterns, standard fayre

The staff learned it was his birthday and came out one by one to wish him a happy birthday and do a little bow, one even came out with some small cakes for him. Super cute. We then set off to have CHINESE food for dinner. I know, right? In Tokyo and we have Chinese. It was the birthday boy’s choice and the old men were paying so we were just happy to be there. I was really bothered by the smoking in the restaurant. Now that I’ve gotten so used to the smoking ban here, going back to eating in a smoke-filled restaurant is pretty gross. It feels very backwards for such a forwards-seeming society.

We dashed off to try to find a good night view of Tokyo. We arrived at Roppongi Hills to try to get to the top of the Mori Tower. Sadly, we were too late, despite having got a taxi (which are MASSIVELY expensive), so just went and had a drink in a trendy bar in the tower.

After a pricey cocktail, we decided to head home, as we had a full day planned for Saturday, too late to catch the last trains we had another taxi.

A quick word on taxis – they are not cheap at all. But then, taxis in London are hardly affordable, especially when traversing the city. Do not touch the doors! The taxi driver opens the door for you, it pops open when they stop to pick you up. Luke was looked at with an hilarious level of disdain when he attempted to open the door of the cab. With most other things, you don’t tip cab drivers. They’ll take it as an offence to their driving skills. A sort of  ‘take this money so you do a better job next time’ thing.

One thing I forgot to mention about the Ebisu night was that before we went home we went to a late night ramen shop. Ramen shops are like kebab shops here, they stay open late and are really cheap. Unlike kebab shops, they are really healthy & filling. Our 2am ramen stop was almost certainly what stopped me having an horrific hangover on this day. I wish we had some late night noodle shops in London.

*he was mildly amused by the tea-towel

Good Vending!

On April Fool’s Day 2011 we woke from our hangovers to a glorious day in Tokyo.

Breakfast in the garden

Parks, pandas and plastic foods were on the menu for us April fools.

After breakfast in our host’s beautiful Japanese garden, we headed to Ueno Park. Ueno Park is a large park in the North-East of Tokyo. It has four museums, some temples, a few shrines and a zoo in it. Preeeeeetty busy.

It’s also a sakura hotspot. We were still a bit early for the cherry blossom, most of the trees were just budding, but there were a few spectacular early bloomers. We’d originally planned our holiday at this time because of the cherry blossom usually hitting in the 1st week of April. We are super sakura chasers.

early blossoming sakura in Ueno

Ueno Zoo had re-opened the day we went there, so there was a bit of hubbub going on there as people were happy to see the pandas back in action. Japan LOVES pandas. A lot of the area near Ueno park is littered with panda imagery.

One of the temples in Ueno park had a long avenue of food stalls, apparently an old tradition dating back to times when temple-goers would eat on their way back from their visit. An exciting collection of unidentifiable things on sticks, most for around 100Y (just under £1). At this point we were still a bit shy and didn’t have the confidence to buy any of the things.

Instead, we availed ourselves of the shy-person’s gift – the vending machine order system.

A quick note on vending machines.

arrogant vending machine

They are EVERYWHERE. Honestly, they pop up more frequently than every 100metres, sometimes three in a row, offering slightly different selections of drinks with names like “Calpis” and “Pocari Sweat”. They are amazing – they sell drinks (hot and cold), beer and cigarettes. Many Japanese use their mobile phones to pay for things in vending machines using some sort of chip technology. They can also use their phones as their Pasmo (Oyster card equivalent). They just hold their phone against some bit and the payment comes direct from a digitally set up account. It is brilliant. That’s also how they can ensure vending machines that sell booze/fags, do so only to adults.


It’s very tough to get thirsty in Japan. Vending machines pop up in shrines, temples and even on mountains. Convenience is a key element of Japanese life.  I wish we could have them in this country, but people would vandalise or rob them. Remember when we used to have chocolate vending machines in tube stations? God, I love vending machines.This particular vending process is slightly different.

The machine has a button
for each thing on the menu. You choose what you want, press the button, put the money in and the machine gives you a ticket. You then hand that ticket over to the person on the counter who  makes your order up fresh. I had a matcha ice cream and Luke had a banana and chocolate crepe.

I wish I'd taken this in colour because the octopus was an almost neon pillar box red.

Not far from Ueno Park is Ameyoko Market. This market sold black market American goods during the war and is now still the best place to get specialist foreign imports, especially American candy. It sells everything for good, negotiable prices – the opposite of the Ginza department stores. Clothes, accessories, seafood, candy, electronics – it has a bit of a Delboy vibe.

After our stroll through Ameyoko market we decided to walk to Asakusa, one of the most famous temples in Tokyo, which I’ll tell you all about in the next post – this one is already so full of photos.

the amount of dried squid I saw made my brain twitch at the idea of how much squid is still left in the sea

Luke enjoying a hot can of Rainbow Boss coffee.

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.

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.