Friday, March 23, 2007


AS EXPECTED, I was up and about even before the sun rose over Tokyo's streets. I spent this down time writing on my travel journal- the hotel's stationery-- and poring over my Kyoto research papers. I'm such a nerdy traveler.

BREAKFAST, composed of a cup of hot chocolate, a hotdog sandwich and a ham and cheese panini, was at Cafe Doutor. I know I balk at eating typical Western food at exotic locales, but sometimes I have to give in to hubby and little boy, who don't really share my penchant or obsession for eating what the locals eat, 24/7. SIL knows this, and turns out to be the savior of the morning. She brought 2 packets of onigiri from the convenience store near her dorm, and showed me how to open the wrapper. Triangle is the most common shape of this "fast" food, and the 3 numbered corners have to be peeled carefully to preserve the shape and leave one with a small amount of wrapper to hold on to while munching. I was so clumsy the seaweed wrap disintegrated on my clothes, but never the mind, I still ate my salmon-filled onigiri for breakfast and liked it. I can't eat this everyday, though. There's just way too much rice and too little filling. On Day 5 I was sick of onigiri, but that's another story.


OUR ITINERARY today: the retrospective streets of Asakusa and museum area of Ueno. The shops in Asakusa are from the Edo period- it was like stepping back in history, but nothing compared to our tour of old Japan through the eyes of a loquacious taxi driver in Kyoto on DAY 4. All I needed then was a kimono, a samurai warrior, and a meek demeanor behind my lacquer fan. In any case, Asakusa was teeming with centuries-old food shops, touristy stalls selling souvenir items, restaurants, newer fastfood chains and convenience stores. The shops lined the 250 meter Nakamise lane, and walking through each block from the entrace at Kaminarimon Gate brought one closer to the Asakusajinja Shrine and the oldest temple in Tokyo-the Sensoji Temple. Outside the Temple stood a fierce-looking warrior statue standing in the middle of a flowing fountain. Old folks and brave tourists would drink fountain water from a long-handled cup, gargle it and spit it onto the outer rim encircling the fountain. I wonder if they thought the water had healing powers... I was only brave enough to hold the cup.

I THOROUGHLY enjoyed trolling the shops selling kimonos, lacquerware, fans, sharp swords and knives, table runners and placememats, textile and of course, food. Pickled everything was present, the ubiquitous mochi, rice cracker shops were a dime a dozen, and picture-taking was allowed!

spoofs unlimited-Japanese style

BEFORE we left Asakusa SIL and I were escorted by a kindly old woman to Kappabashi Doggugai, a street filled with shops selling the cute plastic food displays found in almost all Japanese restaurants worldwide, knife stores, utensils, ceramics, porcelain and everything a home or professional cook could ever need. I could only gaze in amazement at the quantity and prices. I didn't have enough luggage space for everthing. I especially liked the realistic and colorful plastic displays. They're kitschy but who cares? During this little side trip of ours hubby was frantic. Little boy was feeling uwell and literally s*** in his pants. Hubby was all alone with him and had no way of contacting us. He handled the disaster pretty well, and was a darn good sport about it. Little boy was happy with his overlong Uniqlo cargo pants. What a (mis) adventure!

toasting rice crackers. they're not a personal favorite, but my mom loves them. i bought her an assortment.

this store sells basketsful of rice crackers in various flavors (salty, sweet, sesame, green tea, nuts) and colors (light green, pink, natural, black). other stores sold popcorn- like spicy rice puffs; bite-sized, crunchy, neon-colored rice puff candies with sesame seeds, plain or with nuts. it's rice cracker paradise.

a man making "dolls", pancakes filled with red bean paste and molded into fancy shapes like birds and pagodas. they taste like debimanjo in Megamall.

my pogoda pancake

with the red bean paste. we bought it freshly cooked, and nibbled on the hot treats while sightseeing.

sweet sake is a powder added to boiling water. it tastes slighty sour- like spoiled milk, after a couple of gulps the initial hint of alcohol becomes more pronounced. if you don't drink it right away the powder becomes grainy and forms small granules in the liquid.

my sweet sake. perfect for the cold day.

our quickie lunch at Asakusa- bento boxed lunch set and sashimi on rice

NEXT STOP was Ueno, but since we arrived past 3pm (because of the mishap with the pants) there was no time for the Ueno Park and Zoo, Japan's first; or the Tokyo National Museum, which I longed to see. We decided on Ameyoko, a noisy street system with a "tiangge" vibe. I was able to taste a savory mochi (sticky rice wrapped in seaweed and grilled), sweet mini mochi balls on sticks (see picture below) and

the largest takomaki i have ever laid eyes on. it was so filling i almost didn't eat dinner. almost.

A TRADITIONAL takomaki stand will give you 8 normal-sized octopus balls in an ark-shaped paper plate, and you garnish it as you wish with the brown sauce, wasabi paste, mayonnaise, bonito flakes and nori flakes. The store from which we bought our giagantic one had a bright pink sauce.

FOR DINNER we ate at a traditional kaiten sushi shop in Shinjuku. This is where they place a few pieces of sushi on small plates and let this rotate around a conveyor belt. Customers sit around the belt and get what they want, eat, stack the plates, pay and leave. There's powdered green tea, hot water, pickled white ginger, sushi soy sauce (not just any soy sauce will do because this one is milder, more delicate and does not overpower the freshness of the sushi) on every cover. Wasabi is something you have to ask for. Unlike the large chains that have since set up shop abroad like Genki Sushi in HK, there are no temaki rolls, no deep-fried soft-shell crab or tempura prawn sushi. Everything is raw, except the chicken breast, and everything is fresh. Their only concession to "non-sushiness" was a kani salad, miso soup and edamame. I savored a ceviche-like fish sliver with chopped coriander and ginger on top, and a fish sushi drizzled with minty herb-infused dressing and topped with jade sprouts. The explosion of flavors made me want to bow to the chefs in adoration. The Japanese would normally eat the lower-priced items first, like poached ebi, squid, tamago, then move on to uni, hamachi, salmon, the sweet tiny raw shrimps I am ecstatic about, and toro (bluefin tuna belly). The place was brightly lit, tiny, and the chefs could fashion perfectly-shaped sushi rice balls with their eyes closed. I have no pictures of my wonderful dinner, but my tastebuds and brain have everything on record. Japan made such an impression on me.

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