GETTING BIGGER IN JAPAN: TOKYO
I am not the first, and I am sure I wont be the last to compare Tokyo’s subway map to a plate of colourful noodles, but it is certainly true that, at first, it looks impossibly daunting and you approach the metro stations with a certain amount of trepidation.
However, once you get over the initial fear, Tokyo’s main method of public transport turns out to be an absolute delight. Even, as is often the case, when it is heaving with people and you have to stand.
For one thing, it is air conditioned, which for someone coming from London, is enough to make you refuse to get off, ever, take off most of your clothing, perhaps pack a picnic and make a day of it.
Also, unlike its London counterpart, it is impossibly punctual as indeed are all the trains in Japan.
So, I spent the next three days taking advantage of the fantastic value Passnet metro card and whizzing from district to district trying to cram in as much as possible
First stop on Friday, Shibuya which is a pleasant enough district of Tokyo, but really just an also ran compared to some of its more famous neighbourhoods like the ritzy Ginza or the notorious Shu-Jinku. I would probably not have headed over there but for one reason, The Tokyo Food Show, perhaps the best of Tokyo’s impressive selection of food halls.
As I was to find out, just about every department store in Tokyo devotes the basement floors to food. On one floor, a food hall and below that, a range of restaurants that would make any lover of food swoon.
Of all, The Tokyo Food Show was the one I wanted to see. Considered by many to be one of the best in the city. About the size of a couple of football pitches, the range of products on offer was staggering. From stands selling smarter versions of yakitori to those selling steamed and grilled unagi over rice to western cake stalls and chocolate stalls. I spent a good hour wandering around slightly heartbroken that I did not have the opportunity to buy more than a few bits and pieces to eat as I wandered along.
After a brief wander around the rest of the area, I headed to the altogether more upmarket area of Ginza where many of Tokyo’s well to do head to shop. I was not there for the shopping though, apart from anything else, I didn’t have a single cubic cm in my rucksack for even a wafer thin mint let alone a kimono with a large dragon on the back. I was here to literally head to the wrong side of the tracks to the Yakatori alley where yet another array of rather challenging shop fronts and stalls offered workers on a break or commuters on their way home the chance of a plate of something grilled.
For once, matters meat were at the back of my head as I wanted to try Unagi, eel. The eel, in this case, is grilled, then steamed to reduce the fat content, then grilled again before being basted in a slightly sweet sauce and served over rice or on skewers.
It is a speciality of Tokyo and there are places in town that have been serving it for well over a century. In my case, I just popped into a local fast food joint, sat at the counter, did a bit of my pointing, at which by now, I was becoming a bit of a Yokazuna, and got my plate of Unagi over rice three minutes later. It may not have been the finest example of the art, but it did for me and as by now the jet lag was back in full effect, I headed back to the hotel.
The evening saw me feeling more fit for the fight, so I decided to head the twenty minutes or so South of my accommodation to the lunacy of Akihabara, which by all accounts has the highest density of electronic goods on offer anywhere in the world. That would be all well and good, but wandering around looking at laptops with odd keyboard configurations is not something that really gets my rocks off.
The real attraction was Manga and Anime. Akihabara has become the unofficial Mecca of all matters related to this most Japanese of art forms and, in the three or so city blocks which make up the district you can find everything from shops offering impressive models for the geeks who collect, build and paint them, cinemas showing 24 hour loops of all the latest animations and stores offering videos, computer games and CD’s of theme music.
Manga is a wide church and it ranges from the relatively benign Pokemon, to some incredibly disturbing pornographic versions known as “Hentai” where scenes of rape and paedophilia seem to be, if not compulsory, certainly not frowned upon. All very strange.
So strange that I had to calm myself with some more Yakitori before heading back to the hotel.
Saturday saw me lose my virginity, so to speak. I had never tried the Japanese way of bathing, but those who had told me that after a shower and a soak, they had never felt so clean.
Just about every hotel and inn has its own bathing area with a shower area and a large bath, often filled with spring water. A shower first to clean you off followed by a soak in the hot bath, followed by a cold shower. So, I donned a rather fetching kimono ( pictures available ladies) and a pair of slippers with bunnies on them and headed up to the top floor.
Some bathrooms are communal with separate areas for men and women. This one was private so I was able to lock myself in as I came to grips with the whole affair. Jolly good fun it was too and I can certainly see why it is so popular in a country with a climate so horrifically humid.
Clean as a whistle, I headed out for yet more subway fun. This time to the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa. Well, if truth be told, I didn’t head out to see that, worthwhile though it was. I, in fact, headed out to Kappabashi about two blocks to the West of the shrine. Why? Well, it is the area of Tokyo which houses stores supplying the restaurant trade. Not with food but with all the other bits and bobs you would need from menu stands to kitchen equipment to displays ( including a human size model of The Statue of Liberty)
Best of all, however, it is home to two stores which specialise in supplying plastic models of food for Japanese restaurants to put on display outside their premises as a guide for potential customers.
I am told that the practice began during the occupation when local restaurant owners needed to explain food to British and American soldiers and to show that they had dishes those far from home might crave.
The shops are just fabulous, offering everything from plastic dumplings to complete meals with miso soup, rice and noodles. Incredibly realistic too and, if I was not on the road for another three months, I would be carrying a plate of egg & chips in my pack right now.
More wandering before heading back to the hotel including the small but utterly fabulous Yebisu Beer Museum.
Not that I understood much of the information being offered, but I sure understood the four beer tasting at the end for a mere 400yen.
I had decided to join a group at this point for a bit of a tour around some of the cities outside Japan, so, after a quick lunch at a Kai-ten sushi joint,
I had to pack up all my stuff and move from my small single room to a twin which I would be sharing with God knows who.
The group turned out to be an agreeable mix of Australians, New Zealanders and Brits with one unfortunate American who drew the short straw and got to call me “roomie” for the next two weeks.
After the initial tour briefing, the assorted throng headed out for a local supper. I had other plans though. I was going to eat like a sumo.
The Ryogoku area of Tokyo is best know as the Sumo district. There is a large stadium and surrounding it stores selling everything any self respecting stable of fatties could need.
In the same area, there are also a huge number of restaurants offering up that staple of the Sumo’s diet, Chanko-nabe, a one pot meal containing, well just about anything you can imagine.
Often these restaurant are run by ex sumo and precious little help is given to anyone who does not speak English when searching for the best places.
Our rather charming guide, Yuka had written Chanko down in script for me so I could recognise it when signed outside a restaurant and, while the rest of the group headed out to Ueno, I headed off to eat hotpot.
A short train ride later, I was opposite the Tokyo Edo museum and peering in the window of any number of places in search of Chanko. As I said, they don’t give you much help. The restaurants are dark and the sliding doors prevent you peering in, so all but the most inquisitive might pass them by.
One place looked promising and I slid back the door and stepped hesitantly inside. A rather severe looking chap came over and said something entirely incomprehensible to me. It sounded rather fearsome, but then most times people have spoken to me in Japanese, they sound a bit cross.
“Chanko?” I said hopefully.
“Chanko?” He replied as if it was the first time he had ever encountered the word
“Chanko” I nodded
“Chanko?” He countered again with not the slightest sign that he knew what I was talking about.
This could, obviously, have gone on for some time, particularly as it never crossed my mind to show him the piece of paper on which Yuka had written my heart's desire, if it was not for the fact that one other table in the small room was occupied by a family whose father came over to see what the commotion was.
He looked at me quizzically so I said the only work I knew
“ Chanko” I tried to say it in the style that a character from The Water Margin might use to try and give it more authentic flavour, but I was beginning to lose hope.
The man turned to the owner and said
“Ah, Chanko” replied the owner as if the scales had fallen from his eyes. “ Chanko, Chanko, Chanko” he said it a few times more as if the word was getting good to him and then he gestured for me to take off my shoes and pointed to a table in the corner.
He brought over a menu all in Japanese and pointed to three vertical lines of lettering with the words “ Chanko” He obviously just loves saying that word now. You could hardly stop the bugger.
Well, I had not clue number one what was in each one, so just pointed at random and sat back hoping for the best.
An elderly lady appeared with a large cooking pot filled with broth and a burner alongside some oversized cooking chopsticks and a ladle.
She went off and re appeared with a plate the size of a radar dish filled with seafood and fish and a mound of white cabbage and began to place them in pot of broth with the cabbage on top before pottering off and leaving me to my own devices.
After about five minutes, she came back and began to serve me, filling my bowl with a little of the soup and a small amount of each of the included ingredients.
After that, I was on my own.
It is little surprise that sumo attain enormous girth eating like this every day. I could barely make a dent in it and the elderly woman looked most disapproving when, after about half an hour, I gave up the ghost with Chanko sweat pouring from my brow.
It is really meant to be shared by at least two people which is reflected both in the size of the meal and the price ( about 3,000yen) so, I think I gave it a good try.
As I left to head back to Ueno, the owner, whose pictures of him in his sumo heyday lines the walls, gave me a cheery wave, a thumbs up and a goodbye in the form of the word “chanko”