Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Saturday in Fall: Koishikawa Korakuen

Dear readers, family, friends and goats, I admit it: I am a koyo freak.

The leaves, bright against clouds or blue autumn skies, fascinate me. I turn to stare at every bit of red or gold that I pass on the train or taxi. The low, warm sunlight through the leaves makes me incredibly happy, as does the chance to jump on the crunchy leaves which have already fallen.

Saturday I kidnapped Matcha-kun and submitted him to a long tour of Koishikawa Korakuen... although admittedly, he didn't seem to mind at all. As with many Japanese gardens, it was smaller than I thought, and Tokyo Dome loomed in the background. However, it is filled with secret little corners, like a treasure hunt. Bridges and stepping stones, a miniature rice field and strange little tombs all appear as soon as you turn a corner. The garden is famous for iroha momiji, which have tiny little leaves, and turn a very striking shade of red.

Sunny autumn afternoons have a special, glittering romance to them, which we continued by walking over to nearby Kagurazaka and hiding out at Gelateria Theobroma. While the main draw may be the icecream, the spiced hot chocolate was perfect to warm up from the chill, thick and truly chocolaty. I love the location as well, away from the main drag and designed to look like one of Rome's buttery yellow buildings.

The only sad thing is that the leaves will only be around for another couple weeks... perhaps I should take a few days off just to stare at the trees?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Toyoko Line Love: Motomachi Chukagai

I feel that Yokohama is somewhat overlooked. Although a 30 minute train ride from Shibuya will get you there, somehow it has been submerged, taken for granted as a part of the sprawl that is Tokyo.

Admittedly, to some extent I am also guilty of this. A lot of my time is spent around Tokyo, with occasional side trips. To remedy this on a fine day we went off to explore the Motomachi/Yamate area, with its air of Meiji nostalgia and opportunities for walkies.

The old houses of diplomats and other of Japan's first non-Japanese residents sit upon a hill, brilliant in paint and copper, interspersed with fancy tea houses and the Foreign Cemetary, a testament to Japan's evolution towards being a more cosmopolitan nation. I was pleasantly surprised to see that many non-Japanese women were buried with their Japanese husbands, which gives me yet more ammo for when people say that the 'gyaku-kokusai couple' is a recent phenomenon.
The Motomachi shopping street is full of expensive stores, fine for window shopping but obviously mainly targeting an older, more monied set than myself... although the store with the oversized chair in front of it was a hit!

Monday, November 19, 2012

For the Love of Men

'Men' as in 'noodles', naturally.
(Ah, I can just hear the disappointed sighs of naughty-minded readers).

It may be genetic, but my live affair with all things noodle-y is well-documented.

Starting with my least favourite, soba. Kansai is known as an udon eating area, and I have been heavily influenced. However, I have found two places with really exceptional soba. My favourite is unfortunately not in Tokyo, but rather all the way out in Karuizawa. Kagimotoya is deservedly famous, and right next to Nakakaruizawa station. The tempura set and sansai versions are my favorite.

The other is a fav of my boss's, which we often use to entertain visitors from abroad. Kawakamian takes on the noodles with a modern twist. For instance with duck-topped soba or, my go-to order, soba with a chestnut dipping sauce. I have never seen this dish anywhere else, and it is amazing.
川上庵 - 料理写真:ランチコースのせいろ(くるみだれ付き)。
Next on the list is udon. I eat it so often at home that when going out I tend to ignore it. By my great love is Tsurutontan, famous for their ginormous bowls, fusion dishes and extravagant interiors. My fav is the one amongst the host bars of Kabukicho, and decorated to match. They are open until 5am too, a great place to hang out if you miss the last train.

And finally, the king of noodles, ramen. The varieties are endless. For those seeking a curry kick Toratake in Kabukicho is really good, and unusually even has private rooms and a few other non-ramen appetizers. In the spring the vegetarian ramen and gyoza at Kagetsu are phenomenal and light. A weird but tasty combination, the cheese tsukemen place hidden beside the tracks of Nakameguro station is worth a try.
Mmmm, tasty, convenient carbohydrates.

And speaking of convenience, here are a few recent finds. The vending machine is in Daikanyama, and I think it speaks volumes for its location. I mean, I often regret the lack of guava jam in ordinary jidouhanbaiki...

The other is a drink I recently came across at the *gasp* convenience store. Yes, even I occasionally succumb to the 24 hour charms of the combini. It can be hard to get enough calories after a session with the orthodontist, as the pain of chewing puts me off. But this glorious, sugary, protein-filled 'latte' does the trick. Perfect before a long night run with the Hash. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Food, Writing and Inconclusive Thoughts

And once again I find myself at the counters of my regular kaiten sushi in Saitama, observing my thoughts marshal by, in time with the little plates. I wonder what it is about movement and noise that make a conducive writing atmosphere.

While I am a regular customer and big fan of Lu's Cafe (which I have written about before, and where I recently had French toast with a friend) I simply cannot write there. As welcoming and relaxing as it, or as my room or Shinjuku Park are, all I want to do is chat or curl up with a book.

But put me in a busy, crowded cafe, kaiten sushi or, better yet, train or plane, and my hand automatically reaches for a notebook or (more recently) smartphone.

Perhaps it is the coming and going of other people that is inspiring. I see my thoughts projected on other people. Odd for an introvert, you would think.

But perhaps a silent room leaves too much space for all my thoughts, which all come to quickly and then dam up, leaving me with an empty or doodled page. Perhaps the act of writing in public is a kind of escape from the busyness around me.

As a lover of great food, I nonetheless cannot write in its presence. I am far too busy enjoying it, and doing little seated dances of glee. But I do not need to feel that enryo about kaiten, train onigiri or (kami forbid) plane food, which I usually don't eat anyway. Writing replaces food, perhaps?

I am currently reading an odd little book, published in the 90s and found in a delightful used bookstore in Kagurazaka, called 'Tokyo Kitchen' (which is unavailable in translation, I fear). It is rather fascinating, as I often wonder how people think about day to day things, if they think like me, or I am unique in my weirdnesses (unlikely). Food being so intrinsic, it is interesting to hear what others think, what dishes speak of home, comfort and love, how one eats alone or in company.

It becomes obvious that those who chose their surroundings well are often more settled and likely to cook. Others seem content to eat pancakes or conbini udon everyday, usually in a cramped, noisy usagigoya. The presence of a stable, welcoming home is comforting, and the act of writing is a 'home away from home' for many.

Hmm. Kaitenzushi musings.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Sunday in the Mist: Karuizawa

Runners are nuts. I can say this with full confidence, being part of this global tribe of insane people.

Seriously, we spend huge amounts of our precious income travelling to far away places, to essentially beat up our bodies and exhaust ourselves... if possible in the near vicinity of pretty scenery, good food and boiling onsen.

I was thinking along these lines when I went out to Karuizawa to run the 5k time trial of the two day Karuizawa Resort Marathon extravaganza. It was rainy, foggy, cold, and the last thing I wanted to do was remove my nice warm coat and warm-ups. However, perhaps I should be thankful to the weather, as the promise of putting on layers after the finish line may have propelled me to higher speeds, as I ended up 16th in the race (woo!).

I love Karuizawa and the race was a perfect excuse to go back. Koyo has already started there (since it is bloody freezing), and the rain stopped right after I crossed the finish line (handy!), which meant I could go exploring before jumping on the Tokyo-bound shinkansen.

First order of business after any race is food. I had heard good things about Karuizawa Flatbreadz, which was also close by. While they have lots of sandwiches, I was lured by their individual fondue set. For just under 1000 yen you get a pot of melted cheesy goodness, along with fresh bread, salad and soup.
After refueling, I caught one of the rare buses towards Taliesin, which I had not been able to visit last time around. The grounds were a bit smaller than I imagined, but the trees and Meiji era houses were lovely. The mist and fog shifted around, sometimes concealing, sometimes clearing, making for a terribly evocative atmosphere.
Amateur photographers were out in force, but it was still very peaceful and relaxing, despite the cold. I felt very lucky to be able to get a preview of the fall colours, as the leaves have yet to turn in Tokyo.
While there are several cafes in the park itself, I decided to go to the Library Cafe just outside the gates for a cup of tea and some scones, both excellent (caramel/nut scones, yum!). I also ran into my boss (!) there... small world.
As I am done racing until the spring, now I need to find another excuse to go hang out in Karuizawa. I throughly recommend it for a weekend getaway, I always come back feeling refreshed and rested... although in this case with slightly sore calfs, hehe.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

For the Love of Layers

The morning air outside of my comforter is taking on an edge, a warning sign of the cold mornings to come. It makes the extra 5 minutes I give myself before getting out of bed, all curled up in a ball of warmth, even more delicious.
But I shouldn't complain too much, as after getting out of bed there is the exciting opportunity to get decked out in fall fashion, layering to my heart's content. Fall is a procession of awesome jackets, swinging light coats, chunky accessories and bright colours.

 It is also the perfect season for kimono. No sweating from the heat in summer, or freezing your toes off in the winter, but a perfect balance between layers (again!) of silk and unusual stoles. The lower angle of the autumn sun reflects off the gold and silver of the obi, and lights up the cream colours from within.