Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

JAPAN DAY 3: Asakusa, Nakamise-dori, Kappabashi-dori, Sumida River, Hama Rikyu, Roppongi

Sorry guys ... my momentum of posting was shut down by sickness. The long flight, the jet lag, and a contaminated office from a building fire before I left, have combined to overwhelm my immune system and I am ill. I never get sick, so when I do, I'm a total baby about it. Anyway, between Thursday night and last night I slept for about 24 hours so no posting from me. I'm still feeling nasty, but think I'm on the road to recovery now, so I can sit up in bed and post again.

So, back to Japan, where I was healthy. On our third morning, we discovered the Caffe Excelsior near our hotel. This place is like the Japanese rip-off of Starbucks, yet, I liked it much better than any Starbucks I have been to. The coffee's better, and they have better food, and they're a bit friendlier. They have a couple options for your "morning set," including a bagel, a croissant sandwich, and the above-pictured ciabatta sandwich, which is what I chose. Definitely the most attractive fast food I have had. It was very good, too. The sandwich came out piping hot with a poached egg, cheese and ham as the fillings. I believe the set was around 400 yen, which is $3.40. Not bad.
After breakfast we headed to Asakusa, an older, quieter area of Tokyo. The main sight in Asakusa is the Senso-ji, an old Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), the bodhisattva of compassion. The entrance is the Kaminari-mon or "Thunder Gate." It's a large gate dominated by a gigantic red and black paper lantern flanked by statues. Beyond the thunder gate is not the temple yet, but one of my favorite streets in Tokyo, the Nakamise-dori.

Nakmise-dori is a pedestrian street leading up to the temple filled with little shops. Some have touristy stuff but many are neat and tidy little artisan food shops, and you can almost always watch the creators of the food at work. They have many types of food for sale here, mostly of the snack variety, but the most common are rice crackers, which come in all flavors and which you can even buy fresh made in some cases.

It's almost impossible to make it down this street without getting something to eat. I may have broken down and grabbed an apricot flavored fritter that was filled with adzuki bean paste. It was so good that J. vowed to get one for himself on the way back.

At the temple, we were able to get our fortunes told, which we had learned how to do at the Shitamachi museum the day before. I got a "regular fortune" which, actually was pretty good. I especially like the part about being able to get permits from the "noble and mayor person." Maybe now is the time to think about opening a bar. I then tied my fortune to the designated tie-area so that the wind could blow all the bad luck away.

Before you go into the temple, there are some rituals you have to do:

There's the incense well, where lots of incense is burning and you are supposed to waft the smoke over yourself for good luck. Those of us who are asthmatic opted not to participate in this part.

Then there is the well, where you purify yourself by washing our hands and rinsing your mouth before entering the temple.

Finally you enter into the temple itself, which is pretty impressive. There didn't seem to be a problem about taking pictures all up inside the temple, but that somehow seems wrong to me, so I just took this one outside shot. The box in the bottom center is where you stop and throw some money in and then pray. Further inside was the shrine to Kannon with her statue and lots of finery. The statue of Kannon was found by two fishermen in the year 628 and there has been a shrine to her here ever since.

After the temple we went back down Nakamise-dori, where J. made good on his promise to get himself a fritter and I got to snap a picture of the fritter-kids in action.

We also saw the very latest in fashion for Westerners. Yukata for mom, ninja suit for son. I'm sure we'll see this on every small town America street quite soon.

Another snack we had to try were these millet snacks, or kibidango. These were a popular snack to buy on this street during Edo period Japan. Kibi is millet powder. The kibi and sweet rice is made into several balls, which are then coated in kinako, or soybean flour. They are served with a cold green tea during the warmer months. In winter they would be served with Amazake (sweetened rice sake).

They were nice. Sweet, but not too sweet. About as sweet as a healthy cereal. The one hazard is that the soybean powder was prone to fly off the thing and get all over. At least I only got it all over myself, unlike the other gai-jin who blew it all over some unsuspecting woman's back. Oops!

When we got back out to the main street we saw this guy:

He was running for something. I thought it was mayor (Hey, give me some permits, noble and mayor person!) because of the sash and because the elaborate campaigning with a big truck and microphones and stuff, but our friend told us it was city council. Wow. Our city council people just put up signs.

After the temple we walked over to Kappabashi-dori, otherwise known as the restaurant supply district. Here you can find anything you need for your kitchen or restaurant or bar. I wondered if we would be able to find it, but I shouldn't have worried.

This guy pretty much clued me in to the fact that we had found it. This street was pretty amazing. You could find everything from dishes, to restaurant furniture, to fancy appliances, to any type of sign you might need. There were even stores catering to themed restaurants. There was an "American-kitsch" decor store with license plates and lava lamps and 50s advertisements and tiki stuff. Right next door was the "traditional japanese" decor store with all very zen-like pieces in muted tones. Then there were the "chinese restaurant" stores that were a riot of red and gold and filled with lanterns and buddhas and things chinese.

Oh yes, and how could I forget?

The plastic food model stores! Here you can find every type of food you can think of rendered in lifelike plastic. The first store we went to was my favorite because the guy was extremely artistic and creative in his displays. In his window he had Munch's "The Scream" rendered in a spilled coffee. I curse myself for not getting a picture, but I was so excited to have found the plastic food.

After that we boarded a boat down the Sumida River back to the Hama Rikyu Gardens, which were near our hotel. We weren't quick enough to get an outside seat on the boat, so I didn't take any pictures, but I have to say that after we passed by the riverside cherry trees, the cruise wasn't all that scenic. It was interesting, watching Tokyo go by, but not exactly beautiful for pictures.

The Hama Rikyu gardens, on the other hand, had a quite a lot of photo opportunities. There were duck hunting traps, including a little memorial grave site to all the ducks that had been hunted there. There was a tea house, there was a miniature Mt. Fuji, there were lakes and bridges, but of course I got stuck once again on the cherry trees. These trees you could walk right up to and take as close up pictures as you wanted. So, okay, we spent kind of a long time taking close up pictures, far away pictures, pictures from different angles and pictures of each other under the cherry trees.

At this point we were hungry, so we went off in search of food. Now, there was a magazine in Japan called "Surprise Dining." Surprise dining was pretty much the theme of our trip, since a lot fo the time when we sat down to a meal, we had no idea really what we were going to eat until we got it.

Case in point, our next restaurant. We stopped into a ramen place in Shiodome. Apparently this restaurant was the result of a television search for the best ramen cook, and the winner was given this restaurant. Apparently this restaurant has seen lines of 200 people or more waiting to get in to the restaurant. When we went, that was not so much the case. We poked our heads in and were immedately yelled at by the hostess, from which we eventually determined that there was a machine where you had to make your order and pay before sitting down. The problem with this, of course, was that everything was totally incomprehensible to us. There were three buttons with pictures on them, so we decided to go for those. J. got his, no problem. But then my button wasn't working. I gave up and just pressed the button underneath it, which was the same price. It couldn't be bad, could it?

Okay, well maybe it could have, but it wasn't. It was phenomenal. J.'s was a pretty standard bowl of ramen. Mine, on the other hand, was a barbecued pork that was slightly charred and crispy on the outside, tender and yummy inside. And the bits of char mingled with dark broth to infuse it with the barbecued flavor. Also, there was something else in it that was like some kind of pate or something that melted into the soup and made it rich. So this? Was a good surprise. I loved my ramen and I cannot believe it but I ate it all. I also noticed that the guy in the next seat over took a picture of his ramen too. Hey international food blogger!

For our nightlife we went over to Roppongi. Roppongi is a wealthy area that is also known as the place where foreigners and ex-pats hang out. It got its start as the Westerner hangout after WWII, when the U.S. Army and other Allied military officials occupied the area.

The skyline here is dominated by Roppongi Hills, pictured above. It is of a newer type of building complex showing up in Japan that could best be described as a "lifestyle complex." I wouldn't be surprised to see this type of thing show up in downtown L.A. at some point. It's basically, shops, homes, and offices all in one huge building. Theoretically one could live, work, and shop all in the same building and never leave if you didn't want to. There's even a nice museum in this one.

We went up to the museum at the very top, and then enjoyed the view in the crazy-fancy bar at the top.

After that we had time for one more drink and some ... erm ... chips and guacamole and garlic bread (I told you it was an ex-pat area) at Super Deluxe, a hipster cool basement bar populated that night only by us, some older rocker/artsy looking people making out in the corner, and some Ivy Leaguers, one of whom was talking about how she read "Memoirs of a Geisha" and just HAD to come to Japan.

And then it was time for bed, because the next day we were leaving Tokyo temporarily for the tranquil hideaway of Miyajima Island, where the deers and monkeys roam free and you get a seven course meal every night. That's right. You heard me. Seven. Course. Meal. Every. Night.

Then once refreshed, we will go back to the crazy districts of Tokyo: Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku for a grand finish.


I'm wayyyy behind on my blog reading. Hopefully you are feeling better by now!

I have to give you props for surving the Surpirse Dining in Japan. I'm more squeemish with food and would have been very, very nervous. I realize that I may miss out on some new delights, but that's the way I am.

The photos of your Japan trip are all amazing and it looks like you really infiltrated the Japanese culture. Seven courses every night? How do they stay so skinny?

said by Acme Instant Food at 10:51 AM Delete

Hahahaha! I love the button story. That's awesome. I love all the vending machines in Japan. They even use them for short order places. Hilarious.

said by Chubbypanda at 6:44 PM Delete

Creative Commons license The content on Gastronomy 101 may be reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.