Thursday, June 21, 2012

Japan times - part 1: Shinjuku, 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 first of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Streets of Shinjuku by night, Tokyo, Japan
Airfare sale tickets brought us to Tokyo's Narita International Airport before a luggage-laden train - with station changeover - to Shinjuku where we were based for the majority of our time spent in Japan's capital city.

I was priveleged to all the stereotypes straightaway, within hours of arriving: face masks on the train; drinks vending machines everywhere; a drunken salaryman swaying/dancing against a street pole. There was no doubt that I was in Japan.

Streets of Shinjuku by day, Tokyo, Japan
Japan’s capital city boasts more “city centres” than you can poke a chopstick at – you could think of the ‘wards’ as suburbs within the great, heaving mass that is Tokyo. More than 13 million people call Tokyo home – more than half the total Australian population – spread across the various wards of Tokyo.

Shinjuku is home to the world’s busiest train station and quite the shopping and entertainment centre too. We spent many an hour walking the streets of Shinjuku; discovering little back streets and eateries, chain stores and boutiques, and most fun – department stores and their food-filled basements called depa-chika.

Sashimi selection from Isetan department store, Shinjuku
I could, and did, spend hours in a depa-chika, especially that of department store Isetan in Shinjuku; just wandering slowly between the offerings, admiring, sampling and wondering which and how much of the gorgeously presented food could actually make the trip home. (Unfortunately, photography isn't allowed in the depa-chika.

Eating depa-chika sashimi on the streets of Shinjuku
A purchase from any of the branded ‘stalls’ (for lack of better word) in the department store entails serious and exacting packaging; even if you were going to eat it straightaway. Which wouldn’t be the case though, as for locals the extravagant fare sold at a depa-chika is usually intended as an omiyage gift.

A fruit stall near Shinjuku station (not depa-chika and a lot cheaper)
In the fresh produce section lively displays of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables look almost artificial in their perfection, but it’s the gift fruit section that astounds.

It wasn't just the picture-perfect musk melons – with evenly patterned skins and harmoniously angled stalks
more so the eye-watering price tags that could be 10,000 yen for a single melon. 

There were also cherries and mangoes sold in this fashion and I had to wonder about Japanese society and who was really buying these painfully overpriced fruits.

Children involved in a Shinto festival
Even in a buzzing, modern city, the signs of faith and tradition are abounds with many a Shinto shrine to be found in the back streets of a city centre. 

While in Shinjuku we came across various parades for a Shinto festival of some sort with lots of children and their parents actively involved.

Schoolgirls pray at the  Hanazono Jinja Shrine, Shinjuku
The Hanazono Jinja Shrine was surprisingly close to where we were staying but also proximal to Kabukicho - Shinjuku's red light district.

One particular weekend saw a festival full of stalls and people, young and old, making offerings and prayers at the Shinto shrine.

Ayu no shio-yaki - salt grilled sweetfish at Hanazono Jinja Shrine, Shinjuku
There was a great variety of food among the stalls: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yaki soba and this pictured above - a most impressive display of ayu sweetfish, slowly roasting whilst retaining a look of a swimming fish.

We also splashed out on an irresistable choco-banana; a chocolate and sprinkle covered banana on a skewer that's a sure-fire way to get kids to eat fruit.

Side streets in Shinjuku Ni-chome
I'm not even going to attempt to explain the complex address system of Japan. While many streets appear to have street names and all, these aren't taken into account for addresses, which is perplexing to say the least. 

Tsukemen restaurant in Shinjuku
On one of our walks around some of the quieter streets near our hotel, we struck gold when hungry for lunch we were game enough to enter an eatery that was empty, not even sure if they were open for business.

Their enthusiastic welcome and immediate service of iced water and English menus quickly affirmed that we would be having our very first tsukemen dipping ramen experience.

Spicy tsukemen
It's essentially ramen with the two main components ramen noodles and soup served separately. 

The briefly cooked noodles are served cool, maintaining the all-important texture of the noodles while the soup – available in a range of flavours is noticeably more intense in thick flavour than normal ramen and maintains a high heat throughout most of the meal.

Tsukemen eaters grab some noodles with their chopsticks and dip them into the soup, both heating and flavouring the mouthful of noodles, and then with a requisite slurp (of which I am yet to master) bring them up into the mouth.

Mild-flavoured tsukeme
At the end when there are no noodles left and a big bowl of soup remains, we eventually worked out that you top up the hearty bowl of soup with what looks like plain broth, thinning out the strong flavours and reheating the soup ready for consumption of a by-product second course.

As we dried our bowls of soup, a large group of students filled the restaurant chairs for a late lunch. I'm told tsukemen is becoming increasingly popular in Tokyo and in warmer weather, I can certainly see the appeal over a steaming bowl of ramen.

That's the other thing I've noticed about lunching in Japan - there doesn't seem to be a set time like the 12–2pm rush I imagine most Sydney lunch venues contend with. During several late lunches, we were joined with various ones or twos having their late lunches, without concern about the time or dining alone.

Back streets of Shinjuku 
Our first drinking venue was a British styled alehouse with a shelf full of whisky and a number of beers on tap - what can I say, we were desperately thirsty after an entire day of walking.

Whisky and soda highball (hai-booru) and snacks at 82 Alehouse, Shinjuku
Japanese females all seem to drink beer and/or whisky highballs. I suppose there isn't yet a very developed wine culture but it's still a refreshing change from girly white-spirit concoctions.

After a UK craft beer on tap (!), Brew Dog Punk India Pale Ale, we treated ourselves to a fried pasta snack seasoned with the childhood flavours of Mamee Noodles. Drinking snack heaven.

Appetiser at Pukunotori, Shinjuku Go-chome
Speaking of drinking and snacks, we probably didn't go to as many izakaya style restaurants as I anticipated. There just ended up being too many places that specialised in something delicious that attracted our attention rather.

One venue we did have izakaya style eats also provided one of my favourite appetisers of the whole trip. Served complimentarily before a meal, this very Japanese appetiser of cold tofu, chopped pickled greens and tiny pink prawns dressed in soy sauce was a study in Japanese subtlety and simple ingredients.

Grilled salted squid
On the other end of the scale was one of the grilled items we chose: a salted, semi-dry squid filled with something else salty in its body and served in slices with mayonnaise. 

This was on the same level of saltiness as Vegemite, though infinitely chewier than a piece of toast. I can definitely understand why it's a drinking snack and was thankful for the draft beer.

Ginger-infused vodka and Hibiki 17-year-old whisky at J-Bar, Shinjuku
Another stumbled-upon place near the hotel, J-Bar was a very modern styled underground bar, with a slick stainless steel kitchen producing a rather delicate bar food menu. 

It was the first place where I was reminded that people are still permitted to smoke indoors in restaurants and bars in Japan, though not outdoors on main streets.

We went straight for the drinks and I couldn't resist the ginger infused vodka sitting on the counter. I like my ginger and the Smirnoff bottle filled up to one-third with thin slices of ginger was promising.

Moscow Mule
The resulting Moscow Mule had that much of a ginger kick that it was spicy. Served classically in a copper mug, I loved the addition of the young ginger shoot acting as a stirrer and an edible garnish.

Bloody Mary
My view is that it's safest to go with classic cocktails in Japan, which tend to be executed very well. Japanese cocktails tend to go the other direction in terms of flavours and styles (you'll see what I mean in upcoming posts).

The classic Bloody Mary was a safe bet, presented with a caddy full of DIY condiments like Tabasco and worcestershire sauces. Classic cocktails in a smoky room ended up being the perfect end to a busy day in Shinjuku - plenty more Japan posts to come.


MissPiggy said...

I didn't realise you'd jetted off to Japan - looks FANTASTIC! I can't wait to try a "real" Izakaya.

tastyfoodsnaps said...

that choco banana looks so cute!! >.<

john@heneedsfood said...

What a great travelogue! I really loved reading about your travels and it reaffirms to me that I desperately need to get to Japan! Man, I can't believe I still haven't been. How cute is that choco banana! Pity you didn't get to more izakaya. The squid sounds almost jerky-like.

penny aka jeroxie said...

I really need to get myself to Japan. It has been awhile.

Jenny (minibites) said...

I loooooove Japan. It's such a peaceful yet busy place and everyone is so so polite and welcoming! unfortunately my cocktail experience over there wasn't very good but we did get great beers from the vending machines!

Tina @ bitemeshowme said...

Didn't realise you went on vacation :) Japan looks like a gorgeous country. I too have been wanting to go for ages but still haven't got the chance. 2013 was meant to be my year for Japan but other things have come up unexpecedtly which means another pause button. SIGH. Those bowls of ramen look awfully good and suit the cold right now. Can't imagine how clean and fresh it would have tasted!

Happyeverafter Bride said...

oh the streets of Japan! I hated the address systems in Japan! Everything is in a grid and you search for the place based on the grid markings much like when you're in a shopping centre looking for a shop. It was hopeless asking locals to read the address too.

Anyways, I really miss the haiborus and the fresh sashimi and sushi. Livign vicariously through your posts in the meantime.

JB said...

I loooooove Japan. Your photos bring back all the memories.

Can't wait for the next in the series!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

That's why Japan is one of my favourite destinations. You can never run out of things to eat or see!

Christina @ The Hungry Australian said...

Oh great post. I've only been to Japan on a work trip for a weekend but I LOVED it. Everything was so beautifully designed and the food - oh baby! btw I love the banana choc stick treat - I'll have to make some of those at home for my kids!

gaby @ lateraleating said...

The squid looks a bit scary... salty like Vegemite and chewier than toast... yum (not!). Other than that, cool stuff, looks like you're having fun!

retrodaze said...

I love Japan! That sashimi looks amazing - so fresh.

Tina said...

Hi MissPiggy - It sure is fantastic, but as per normal for holidays, it went too quickly...

Hi tastyfoodsnaps - Haha, it was irresistibly cute!

Hi John - You, the travelbug, haven't been to Japan?! :D Not so much a shame about the izakaya - all the other options are great too!

Hi Penny - I'm looking forward to a return visit at some point down the track too ;)

Hi Jenny - You know what, we didn't have a single vending machine beer! Coffee on the other hand... ;)

Hi Tina - The ramen was special. Not sure I'll be able to eat ramen back home... :/

Hi Happyeverafter Bride - I don't miss the address system but sure do miss all the food!

Hi JB - There'll be a few/several/lots ;)

Hi Lorraine - And almost every meal is great!

Hi Christina - There is a style and efficiency about Japan; a very well-oiled machine.

Hi gaby - Yeah, it wasn't too bad; like a very salty, seafood-y jerky :)

Hi retrodaze - Yeah, and this is the discounted stuff! :D


Corinne @ Gourmantic said...

I love Japan, so many great memories there! Had to laugh at the typical of cuteness.

Good to see you indulged... in the booze kind :)

Vivian - vxdollface said...

I love Japan! But I think I would need at least a couple months just to explore all the nooks & crannies the place has to offer! The first time I went into a depachika I was so amazed by the presentation and then was absolutely shocked when I saw the price!

Sara - Belly Rumbles said...

I love how all the Moscow mules served around Tokyo are in those copper Smirnoff mugs. I think they must have the market cornered.

Tina said...

Hi Corinne - Oh, there was much indulgence had! Plenty more to come ;)

Hi Vivian - I could spend forever in a depa-chika; especially ones with lots of food to sample!

Hi Sara - Mmm, high time we got them here in Sydney I think, hmm Smirnoff??

Anonymous said...

How easy was it to use subway/trains between Shunjuku, Minato, Roppongi, Shibuya? Thanks

Tina said...

Hi michelinstarfinedinings - It's super easy with a swiping top-up travel card and a metro map (and help from your hotel conceierge, perhaps). one of my fave parts of Tokyo is the metro travel - so very simple.

Jackie Brodin said...

So glad to stop here, will be heading to Shinjuku in November can't wait, almost regretting only having seven nites there, will have to go back for longer like you and explore and eat everything except for offals of course.


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