Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Asian Adventure 9 :: 18-28 Sep'09 :: Niigata and Tokyo, Japan

After meeting up with a friend who had travelled over to meet us from London at his well-chosen one night abode, the Park Hyatt (of Lost in Translation fame), we headed for the bullet train to Echigo-Yuzawa, our home for the next four days, hidden in the depths of Niigata Prefecture. We entered as virgins into The Land of the Rising Techno and exited as true Labyrinth converts to this most fantastic of festival experiences.

We indulged ourselves with a post-festival one night stay in the mountains at Inamoto Ryokan complete with two 100% natural hot spring water onsen to cure our 'clubbed to death' zombie-like state. A delicious meal of yakiniku preceded our slow ease into the plump futons which had been laid out for us by our room attendants. The silence after four days of electronic music from a Funktion One soundsystem was deafening. The next morning, our hearty breakfast of six different Japanese delights including grilled fish, pickles, broiled vegetables and, of course, the 'love it or hate it' natto (silent barf), fueled our next adventure - back to Tokyo, via the temple-lover's paradise, Nikko.

If time is short and culture by way of temples is sought, Nikko is one of the best complexes in Japan. Easily navigable within three hours and set amongst trees far older than the generations you can remember in your family, it is reached by a specially designated line from Utsonomiya station - a local 'world heritage bus' will take you to the site.

Minds bursting with stories of spirited away historic people in ancient times, we headed for our final destination: the bright lights of Tokyo. Checking in to the superbly located Sakura Fleur (reservations here), we were reunited with our bags in which we had left unessential festival items five days previously. It was kind enough for the hotel not to have charged us for doing the same but even better that our luggage had already been placed in our rooms. Service in Japan is second to none and like a breath of fresh doublemint after a meal of burger and onion rings when compared to Singapore.

Overcome with tiredness from covering the entire temple complex, we headed for an early dinner at Bistro 35 steps (at level B1 of Shibuya City Hotel) where the highlight was mackerel 'a la blow-torch' perfectly singed at our table. As we had decided to head to Tsukiji to see the tuna auction at 6 a.m., we retired early for some deep sea dreaming.

Being rudely awakened at 4:45 a.m. with the prospect of heading to a huge, busy and bustling marketplace stinking of fish, it was hard to focus our fuzzy heads on the journey ahead. Although just turning light when we stumbled outside, Tokyo life was slowly stirring. Salarymen, school children and a number of older generation Tokyo-ites were going about their daily lives intermingled with a handful of tourists clearly heading to our destination. On arrival, we followed the mix of locals and foreigners and headed deep into the heart of the market, dodging the speeding motorised fish carts, to the auction place. A low hub-bub of voices discussing quantity, cost and flavour floated above rows and rows of frozen tuna, some twice the size of the men peering over them.

When you are used to eating tinned tuna, the actual size of each fish is astounding.

The auction itself was not dissimilar how one could imagine watching the climax of an aquatic episode of Bargain Hunt, in Japanese. We left after about fifteen minutes to explore the rest of the market that we had earlier rushed past in a blind panic lest we be tardy for the auction. Our eyes feasted on row upon row of fresher than fresh sea creatures, some a few hours dead and others on death row. Soon, it was time for our breakfast. I can't say I've had a better morning snack in Asia:

Bellies full, we headed for the waterfront (via the Dentsu Building to ride in my favourite glass lift to the 46th floor) and enjoyed a wallet-punchingly delicious pot of coffee at The Intercontinental Tokyo Bay before journeying up the Sumida River to Asakusa. Along the way, we noted that Tommy Lee Jones was enjoying a nice pocket-filler advertising BOSS coffee in Japan.

I wasn't surprised - when I was living in Japan in 2002, David Beckham was advertising chocolate:

For real.

After a stroll round Asakusa, we decided to head to the Ryōgoku Kokugikan to take in a few bouts of sumo. In the ensuing four hours, we tasted chankonabe and winced and clapped our way through the afternoon whilst super-sized men gave each other a good slap. As we were there early, we joined in with the local custom to sit in higher priced empty seats and were lucky enough not to be disturbed by the true seat-holders until five minutes before we had decided to leave. Watching my hero, the current yokozuna, Mongolian Asashoryu enter the ring from the aisle made my day. Getting back to our hotel in time to watch him on television deftly flick his opponent out of the ring was even better.

A swift couple of aperitifs in Shibuya's Nombeiyokocho "Drunkard's Alley" (a small row of bars sitting up to ten people hidden underneath the railway tracks) led us into our evening meal which was hosted by my dear Japanese friend, Rie. She led us through the backstreets of Shibuya, up Love Hotel Hill and onto our waiting table at Ondoru topped with a skillet on which we seared morsel after morsel of delectable Iberico pork.

Post-dinner entertainment was provided by another dear friend and DJ, Dave Twomey, who whisked us away to Nishi-Azabu where he and Marcel Fengler whipped up a techno storm.

A late start the following day meant that we arrived in Shimokitazawa, my favourite of Tokyo's suburbs, in time for lunch and a coffee at Free Factory. We pounded each alley, nook and cranny for trendy threads and lost ourselves in laughter at Village Vanguard. An overdose of shopping prepared us for the evening's gastronomic journey, beginning at Omoide Yokocho "Piss Alley" (a row of yakitori places sitting about 15 people beneath another set of railway tracks, this time in Shinjuku). From there, we journeyed deep in to the sleepless streets of Kabukichō to a place with no signboard. Inside Bungo Murase works tirelessly to produce some of the best nihon ryōri (plump and fresh sashimi, grilled pacific saury (sanma), punishingly strong wasabi rolls, and a smoothly delicious namboko mushroom miso soup). The number is 03-3207-6165 and his email is uoshin.bungo[at]docomo.ne.jp. If you can find it, you won't regret it. We rounded off the evening with some late night glasses of wine at Bar Beret, one of the themed bars hiding in the backstreets of Shibuya off Roppongi-dori.

Another late start meant breakfast was bypassed in favour of lunch. Today was the designated mega-shopping day so we stocked up on the essential uber-energy meal of curry hamburgers - not your usual American style burger but an enormous meat pattie stewed in Japanese curry sauce, doused with melted cheese. Heart attack on a plate. Awesome. We took in the whole of Shibuya's shopping delights whilst making our way slowly to Harajuku's infamous Takeshita-dori, which (of course, for a Saturday) was packed to the rafters with equally trend-seeking people. All that required a sit down in the beautiful Yoyogi Park with a nice can of cold Chu-Hi before preparing ourselves for the evening's entertainment. That turned out to be a SURPRISE! party for my birthday, organised by my friend and shared with two others. We played "How Many People Can You Fit On a Rooftop Bar in Tokyo?" and partied like sardines on holiday in a matchbox. Brilliant. After one too many dirty birthday drinks, we headed to Legato which was hosting Exit The Labyrinth. It was far too packed and hot for my inebriated mind and body to cope with so we left early at 3:30 a.m., sadly lacking the ambition to travel to Ageha to watch the sunrise. Next time...

Amazingly, we managed six plates of sushi for brunch the next day (turning Japanese after only 7 days...) and went on a final culture push to see the Cosplay girls, Tokyo Rockabillies, Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Palace East Gardens, where we paid our respects to the Emperor by having a little nap on his finely manicured lawn. For the Last Supper, we journeyed back to my darling Shimokitazawa for a slap up meal at a restaurant (Tobu Sakana) whose owners also have a stall at Tsukiji. Of course, again, we would never have found it nor been able to read the menu without my dear friend, Rie, who took us on yet another tour of gastronomic wonderment. We fitted in a photo session at the famous Shibuya crossing on the way home before slipping between our Japanese sheets for the last time:

Being a firm believer in the delicate balancing scales of life, I was able to deal with the fact that we were foiled at the last hurdle by having had far too much fun in the preceding days. Our attempt to depart for the airport was hampered by the fact that trains to Narita from Shinjuku do not leave as regularly as they do from Tokyo station. After ditching our attempt to board the train to Tokyo station at rush hour (and thereby witnessing the men employed to push people on to trains), we hailed a taxi and pretended we were handing over Monopoly money. Transfer time: 1 hour. Cost: GBP3 per minute. Go figure. At least we didn't have to go through this:

As you can tell by the length of this post, I am thoroughly, whole-heartedly, 110% in love with Japan. If I could move to Tokyo tomorrow, I would. It is one of the most contemporary yet traditional, ostentatious yet mysterious cities in the world. It is truly unique and I never fail to feel humbled by its people who demonstrate unending friendliness, generosity and kindness to strangers. Having a local friend or guide is essential to show you those parts that remain hidden to foreign visitors, lest you end up always having to visit places with an English menu that have made it in to Time Out. If it's culture shock and awe that you're looking for, Japan is the country for you.

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