Monday, February 27, 2012

Weekend Away: Hakone

After a month filled with planning and attending work events, constant interviews and general rushing about like a headless fowl, I took Friday off, jumped on the Odakyu Romancecar, and escaped to Hakone (Matcha-kun in tow).

I am a bit of a tetsuko at heart, and there really is nothing like sitting back in a fancy train, watching as the towering buildings of Shinjuku are slowly replaced by smaller houses and stations, which eventually turn to tanbo and winter forests.

Hakone is broken up into several areas, and one of my senpai recommended staying around Gora, which was perfect. The ryokan, Kiritani Hakoneso, was pretty basic, but then again neither of us can afford really high-market accomodation. The onsen (both regular and kashikiri) were great, with wonderfully milky white water. I actually would recommend it for those who want to visit Hakone with relatives, as they have tatami rooms with Western beds, and are quite accomodating to vegetarians!


The following day dawned rainy, but turned to mist after the ginourmous wa-style breakfast. Using the awesome Hakone Free Pass (which I highly recommend buying if you are in the area for more than a day), we went up the mountain to the prehistoric looking 'hells' of Owakudani, to check out the sulfuric springs and eat the famous black eggs (each one you eat adds 7 years to your life, apparently... in which case Matcha-kun managed to add 24 years to his lifespan!)



As we approached the Hakone Open Air Museum, the sun briefly burst through the clouds, and the mist disappeared like magic. Turn around for a minute, and the mist was back, as if nothing had happened. I actually thought this added to the atmosphere, as the statues slowly came into focus as you approached. I would love to visit it again in a different season, and think this is a must see. Nearby there is a little sushi palace, famous for its delicious inari zushi, yum!

After taking the adorably retro Tozan train to Miyanoshita, another onsen break was in order (yes, I love boiling myself in hot springs faaar too much), followed by a stroll down Sepia Road to look at all the antiques and beautiful yosegi zaiku, a form of traditional wood working that has a surprisingly Middle Eastern look to it. And then, the awesome bit of Meiji/Showa-ness that is the famous Fujiya Hotel.


While the exterior is purely Japanese, inspired by Kinkakuji in Kyoto, the inside is an amazingly preserved bit of nostalgia. European wood panels, huge squashy armchairs and chandeliers... all altered with delicate carvings and details to give it a Japanese twist. In the tea room overlooking the garden I splurged on the tasty strawberry-infused creation above, filled with matcha cream and decorated by yosegi zaiku inspired chocolate.

Two wonderful days of relaxing and eating everything in sight... returning to the real world is tough.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Toyoko Line Love- Gakugeidaigaku to Toritsudaigaku

I love to walk. A lot. As in, my favorite programme on Japanese TV is 'Chii Sampo', a show targeted to the obaahan (little old ladies) set, where the host does hito-eki sampo (one station walks) all around Tokyo and other large cities...very uncool, I know.

So, on a sunny (if chilly) Sunday, I set out to explore the area between and around Gakugeidaigaku and Toritsudaigaku, on a walking date. It was very quiet, probably due to the cold wind whipping around. Starting near Gakugeidaigaku station, we wandered past a hole-in-the-wall where the owner offers Chinese tea ceremony for 500 yen, and just slight further down a patisserie called, nostalgically, Rue de Passy, which started a conversation about Paris... and the joys of St.Honore's, yum.

A park filled with adorable, perfectly-dressed dogs and a small shrine in the middle of the lake distracted me (admittedly mostly the dogs!), and we then continued on through the twisty streets, eventually ending up at the bottom of a slope, where this awesomeness appeared:

Pancada is a wonderfully overstuffed antiques shop, mainly filled with delicate Georgian and Edwardian furniture. If you think about it, the size of the furniture is perfect for Japan, since many antiques tend to be smaller and more compact than modern designs. There was a stunning little bookshelf calling my name... man, I really am an obaahan.

Toritsudaigaku, despite the name, no longer has a university situated there, so is much less lively than it must have been in the past. However, this does not stop it from having the amazing redeeming quality of being home to Addis. The owner used to be the chef at the American Embassy, and the brunch menu alone is worth the trip. The eggs Benedict (oh, hear my arteries clang shut) were superb, as was the veggie-filled grilled Cheddar sandwich. In addition, if you call a couple days in advance, the owner will make Ethiopian dishes! They may never get rid of me.

A quick detour to Shinmaruko was the final adventure of the day, although this did require cheating (riding the train). I love the Inari-san foxes, and just a couple minutes from the station, we were rewarded with this foxy delight of a shrine:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Week of Sweets

It is once again the time of giri-choco, tomo-choco... and just general overconsumption of sweets. However, my sharemate Wave-chan takes it all to the next level. Since she works in a cafe, her dessert-making skills are sublime. Wouldn't you be thrilled to receive one of the beautifully decorated cakes above?

Fortunately she was kind enough to share her talents, and after a nice brunch on Saturday, even I got wrapped up in making truffles (which was actually surprisingly easy), that were later scoffed with apparent appreciation by both Matcha-kun and my sharemates.

However, my Valentine's gift was even better. My boss (have I mentioned that my boss is awesome? 'cause she totally is) gave me fresh ramen, wonderful, tasty shoyu ramen! She certainly has me figured out! Is there any better way of spending an evening than with a bowl of ramen, banana chiffon cake (Wave-chan's creation again), a cup of tea and friends?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Kagurazaka and Iidabashi


The long slope between Kagurazaka and Iidabashi station is a treasure trove for back-alley explorers, and one can easily spend an entire afternoon winding about the area...which is exactly what I did!

There are several small art galleries near Kagurazaka station, and we peeked into the Ayumi Gallery, a cozy old house stuffed with watercolors and ink drawings of the artist's world travels. At some point I really want to take a few art classes, and become better at capturing the essence of a place on paper, rather than relying so much on my camera.

The area has a reputation for being very 'French", and admittedly there is indeed a disproportionate number of wine bars. However, it still has a bit of a shitamachi feel, and it is also one of the areas in Tokyo where geisha still reside and entertain. Hidden on the 2nd floor of a non-descript apartment building we found a second-hand kimono store, bustling with little old ladies searching for bargains. The hakama-clad owner was able to unearth a couple TL kimono for me... unfortunately the colours were far to sedate for my tastes.

Down another alley we came across Alpage, which seems to specialize in delicious-looking cheeses and warmed sake... while I resisted the temptation of throwing myself into the pots of fondue, this looks well-worth another visit. On the main road a dumpling store tempted me with vegetable and mozzarella 'man', a nice departure from the usual meat or anko versions!

Each alley and turn holds a new delight, requiring a great deal of walking, which makes one thirsty. After emerging near the British Council (which, by the way, is apparently known as the 'Burikan'... and leads to images of a council consisting entirely of burikko, oy), we came across the Canal Cafe, which used to be part of the Tokyo Sailing Club. While it was a little chilly, in the spring it must be amazing, with all the sakura in bloom. Wandering back up the slope for a second loop, we came across the most modern, stylish shrine you could imagine, a glorious construction of light wood and glass.

As the sun started falling, we dropped into Petit Paris, since no visit to Kagurazaka would complete without some French food, wine and conversation with the friendly owner, Nabil. The choice of wines was excellent, with a decently priced Maubec, and a glorious selection of cheeses... the way to my heart is obviously through fermented milk products, how terribly romantic ;P

Monday, February 6, 2012

The joys of globalization

Saturday I got to spend a long leisurely dinner with a good friend, one of the few people who actually does me the kindness of correcting my Japanese (as I do for his English). It is great to switch back and forth between the two, occasionally detouring through random bits of Italian or Chinese. We both have an imperfect knowledge of the others' language, but the point is not about attaining perfection, but rather true communication.

I truly believe everyone should learn another language, and if possible live in a different country for a while. It doesn't have to be English, although it may be the most useful choice (whether this is positive or not is another discussion entirely). I have a huge amount of respect for the young women I met as a researcher, who went to Russia, Thailand or Vietnam to study the language and culture. I am grateful to be part of the process of bringing Japan to the world, thus also bringing a greater understanding of other countries and cultures back to Japan.

Whenever I hear someone here say 'my Italian friend', 'my German tutor' or 'my sempai, who is originally from Taiwan' it gives me hope, as even in Japan we slowly move away from that all-encompassing word 'gaikokujin'. I love it when I hear people speaking a language that is obviously not their native tongue, whatever it may be. A small voice inside of me goes 'yes!' and fist-pumps in glee, because it means they are open to learning something new and sharing their own knowledge with others.

If you think about it, isn't it amazing that a European person and an Asian person can sit in an Israeli restaurant in Tokyo, drinking French wine and discussing their shared experiences in the US? Not so many decades ago this would have seemed impossible, if not treasonous!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Vegetarian Sunday: Shitamachi and Shinjuku

Not to steal Magritte's idea, but:
This is not roast chicken.

I have been a vegetarian for almost half of my life and (with the exception of sushi and sashimi) do not miss meat. I am also a stealth vegetarian, and it usually takes people a long time to figure me out. It is not a difficult lifestyle to maintain in Japan (as long as you are a bit flexible), and is certainly pretty darn economical (I only spend about 2000 yen per week on groceries)... which means I can use all the funds left to go and try cool restaurants all across the city.

I first saw RinRinSaiKan on one of those awesome 'hey, lets-explore-Tokyo's-shitamachi' TV programmes, and was kicking myself because I only caught the last two kanji of the closest train station. I searched every combination possible, but was stumped. Then, by some miracle, as I was going home after the epic day of sumo, I noticed that the station I had just entered was the same one from the TV programme! Coincidence or what? I guess the veggie gods were smiling down on me.

RinRinSaiKan (also known as 'Its Vegetable!') is not a fancy place, but the food is fantastic and really cheap. I love seitan, and the entire menu is based around it. I only managed to get a picture of the not-actually-roast-chicken above, because both myself and Matcha-kun were far too busy eating. At lunch they have a buffet, and I can highly recommend the sweet-and-sour 'pork', fried rice and 'chicken' soup. Very healthy, tasty and budget-friendly....the only issue is location, as Kinshicho is a bit out of the way.


Walking around soon became an impossibility, due to the strong, cold wind, and so we took refuge at Sumida Coffee, another hidden gem. A basic, retro interior with a good heater (very important!), really, really good coffee and a quiet atmosphere make it a lovely place to chat for an hour or two. The glass coffee cups are handmade in the area, and remind me of the Bohemian glass of my childhood.


Still full from the tasty lunch, but not wanting to go home quite yet, I remembered the lovely Fashimi's post about Il Bacaro in Shinkuku, with cheap prosecco and antipasti, which was great. There is a nice selection of both veggies and fish antipasti, and they taste just like something I would get at home... with a price to match. The location in a little odd, but for 300 yen prosecco, no complaints! And I do wonder is wine and champagne have a slightly odd effect on Japanese men... as my beau was getting extremely friendly.... blame the prosecco?