Monday, July 23, 2012

Japan times - part 3: Harajuku and Shibuya, Tokyo

I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the third of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine complex, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Having decided to check out Tokyo’s Harajuku one Sunday, we took the scenic route via Yoyogi and the forest that comprises the Meiji Jingu Shrine complex.

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine complex, Shibuya
Whatever one might expect from Harajuku and Shibuya, Meiji Jingu is probably the opposite: verdant, tranquil, restorative even. It’s a green haven in the middle of a busy city, reflecting both Japanese history and religion.

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine
Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and is today used as a place of worship and traditional Shinto weddings – the latter of which we were lucky enough to be witnesses to. I now realise that tourists taking photos of random weddings is a worldwide phenomenon.

Prayers left at Meiji Jingu shrine

Inside the Meiji Jingu shrine compound

Shrine gate
The surrounding area of Meiji Jingu is essentially a forest, with trees donated from all over Japan as well as overseas when the area was first established.

Other than the refreshing greenness of the forest, there’s an area with large history-telling billboards, showing among other things, images and insights into Japan’s early relations with the Western world.

Wine barrels

Donated wine barrels
These relations include a collection of wine barrels from wineries in Bourgogne, France which are donated to the shrine.

Facing the wine barrels are wall of decorative sake barrels; also donations to the shrine from sake brewers from across Japan with the sake used at the shrine during Shinto festivals.

Donated sake barrels

Sake barrels
The southernmost exit from Meiji Jingu brought us directly to Harajuku station, which was busy but quite pedestrian considering my expectations. Not far from the station was the main shopping strip, teeming with weekend shoppers.

Harajuku Street, Harajuku, Tokyo

Takeshita Street, Harajuku
Harajuku turned out to be more of a shopping destination with the main street lined with designers brands, back streets filled with vintage clothing stores and just one group of students dressed in what I had in mind was ‘Harajuku style’.

Restaurant entrance
In some of the backstreets, however, we did stumble upon lunch when we spotted a serene, garden-path entrance to a soba buckwheat noodle restaurant.

Inside the restaurant

Zaru soba and tempura set
Set lunch menus delivered my first zaru soba experience; the perfect summer’s day lunch. The buckwheat soba noodles, cooked then quickly chilled in cold water and drained, were served in a traditional basket dish with a soy and dashi-based dipping sauce, and shallots, wasabi and plum sauce on the side.

You could taste the buckwheat flour through the light dipping sauce, which is a very pure experience. Zaru soba is also the perfect instance to get your slurp on. There’s definitely technique to noodle slurping that the Japanese all seem to manage, from the loud young guys to the more stately older ladies. Me, not so much: my slurping tends to be all noise and no noodle movement.

Vegetable kakiage and hot soba set
The soba was also served in a hot soup version which was similarly pure in flavour, but lost the textural subtleties of the cold-served noodles.

Served with the set menus were fantastically crisp and not oily kakiage vegetable fritters, pickles and steamed white rice. The set menus in Japan are actually quite substantial and balanced servings of food, larger than a normal lunch I’d have in Sydney.

At Starbucks, Shibuya
Later in the day we took a moment's rest from a day of walking at one of the world's busiest Starbucks stores, and probably the one with the most amazing view too.

Street intersection crossing in Shibuya
It's really just a street intersection just outside Shibuya station. What's amazing is the sheer amount of pedestrians that cross the street in all directions every three minutes or so.

Street crossing in Shibuya
It's been called one of the busiest pedestrian street intersections in the world, and it was mesmerising to watch over a green tea frappuccino.

Crossing the street in Shibuya

Bar at The Whales of August, Shibuya
People watching had made us thirsty although it was chance and a large sign proclaiming 'cocktails' that got us downstairs into the darkened cocktail bar.

With the 500 yen table charge explained to us, we sat at the bar to take in the place, bartenders and extensive back bar of the excellently named The Whales of August cocktail bar.

Appetiser from The Whales of August, Shibuya
Common in many small bars in Japan, I suppose the table charge covers things like the hot hand towels upon seating and the appetiser that arrived as we perused the menu. Lightly cooked zucchini, bits of processed ham, olive oil and basil constituted this particular appetiser.

Gimlet (left) and Manhattan (right) from The Whales of August, Shibuya
Classic cocktails are generally executed exceptionally well in Japan and their own concoctions, well, they're an acquired taste.

Sticking to the classics to start, my properly icy cold Gimlet is the product of some serious shaking with the gin slowly warming me up. The Manhattan is a drink I'm yet to appreciate, although my dislike of maraschino cherries doesn't help the cause either.

Whales of August cocktail (left) and whisky (right)
A nip of whisky on ice came with an ice ball, making it look like quite the significant pour. On the other hand I was game enough to try one of the bar's own cocktails; all of which are named after famous movies (much like the bar itself).

The recommendation was the bar's namesake cocktail, which I think had a white spirit base as well as a touch of the near-requisite of Japanese cocktails, blue Curaçao. From memory, it was a lychee flavoured cocktail that didn't change my views on Japanese cocktails.

Late night eats in Shibuya
It had somehow gotten to 10pm before we went to hunt for dinner and at this particular establishment, filled with young drinkers and smokers, we were warned that we only had 30 minutes to put our orders in before the kitchen closed. Given our ravenous, post-drinking state, that wasn't a problem.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant
The vibe was definitely young, even in the kitchen where the black clothed chefs and waiters alternated between sleeves of tattoos or rock-star long hair.

The izakaya style food offerings seemed secondary to drinking, of which draft beer and oolong-hai (cold oolong tea mixed with shochu spirit) were popular.

Appetiser of young raw garlic
Handed our appetiser in a metal dish, the long shoots of garlic with a blob of miso on the side was rather confronting and unexpected.

While I could see the textural appeal of the crunchy young shoots, the sheer pungency and heat of the raw garlic was too much after several attempts, not even considering the subsequent garlic breath.

Potato salad
Luckily there was respite to be found in the potato salad - Japanese style, of course, constituting creamy mash and chunks of potato, thins of pickled cucumber and carrot rounds.

Fried chicken
I didn't expect the main game to be fried chicken, but it most certainly was. With a thin, crunchy, golden batter, these chunks of juicy chicken thigh were dressed in a tart soy-based sauce with fried-up garlic, ginger and chilli, among other scrumptious ingredients.

Yakisoba - pan fried soba noodles
The yakisoba fried noodles ended up being our filler dish and it wasn't too bad a version. Tossed with plenty of pork slices and cabbage, the saucy noodles were finished with common toppings of aonori seaweed and red pickled ginger strips.

Streets of Shibuya by night
Shibuya and Harajuku didn't end up at all like I had anticipated, which wasn't at all a bad thing and not the last time Japan was going to surprise me.

Plenty more Japan posts to come. See more photos at my Facebook page.


john@heneedsfood said...

Hello garlic breath! Really, raw garlic as an appetiser? Man, the crowd in there must have smelt nasty. Just kidding. I'm really loving your Japan posts. It truly is a city worth exploring. From the parks to the back alleys. Love the photo of the prayer boards in the shrine.

MissPiggy said...

I could sit and watch that pedestrian crossing ALL day long...that's people watching at it's best.

penny aka jeroxie said...

Love this post and love to go back to Japan. Everything just looks so calming

missklicious said...

Nice photos. Love Japan!!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I miss Japan so much! It's been so long since I lived there but the photos brought it all back instantly.

Tina @ bitemeshowme said...

Your photos make me want to go to Japan sooo badly! I think you've captured everything I wanted to see in these places (friends keep raving on about them!)

gaby @ lateraleating said...

Young raw garlic as appetizer?! Other than that, food looks amazing.

Tina said...

Hi John - Thanks! I didn't get too close to other people buy everyone was chowing down on the garlic - so we did too!

Hi Miss Piggy - I think we spent at least an hour in the prime window spot :)

Hi Penny - Crossing that intersection in Shibuya wasn't so calming..!

Hi missklicious - Thanks so much!

Hi Lorraine - I miss it too and I was only there for two weeks!

Hi Tina - Oh, there's plenty more to see in Japan (and my future posts!)

Hi gaby - Yup, not so keen to have that again... :/

Corinne @ Gourmantic said...

Ahhh... this took me back! We too witnessed a wedding at the Meji shrine. Loved harajuku, esp with the Cosplay on Sunday. I really miss Japan!

Vivian - vxdollface said...

That's a beautiful restaurant entrance! hehe not sure how I feel about the raw garlic, don't think I could stomach more than a few bites either

Tina said...

Hi Corinne - We were there on a Sunday and no Cos play or anything of the sort!

Hi Vivian - I'm sure it did wonders in keeping us healthy... And stinky!

Richard Elliot said...

The Meiji shrine was possibly the highlight of my short trip to Tokyo. I went on a Satruday and despite it being prime time (according to my guide book) for seeing some of the 'Harajuku girls' near the entrance to the park, we didn't get to see anyone dressed particularly outrageously!

After the shrine we ended up in a busy, but not particularly fantastic katsu restaurant from memory.

Watching the crossing in Shibuya was quite a site too.


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