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.


I WOKE up early; much, much earlier than my alarm clock, which was set at 8am. The only time I happily and willingly wake up before an alarm clock (or before noon, for that matter) is when I'm travelling. I'm just too excited to sleep. My normally sleep-addicted body knows when it's in another place. My heart races, my brain explodes with plans and ideas, my tummy demands to be fed with everything delicious, exotic, and local.

FIRST stop was the basement grocery of the Odakyu Department Store. Not very big as far as basement groceries go, but filled to the brim with diverse products like raw fish and seafood, fish roe, pickled fish, ginger, turnip and various other vegetables, all the chicken parts you can imagine (wings, breast, thigh, gizzard, skin, heart and liver, hmmm, come to think of it I didn't see chicken feet) grilled on skewers or deep fried, bento boxes in all assortments, colors and sizes, tempura prawn, vegetables, tonkatsu pork, platters heaping with Western and Japanese salads, sushi and sashimi, onigiri (wrapped Japanese rice with various fillings in triangle, square or oblong shapes, which salarymen eat like Westerners would sandwiches or Mexicans burritos), gyoza, Western pastries and cakes adorned with the largest, freshest, most vibrantly hued fruits I have ever seen, Japanese-style mochi and wafers, bread, fresh fruits, and other delicacies known only to Japan. Looking around made the glutton in me come to life. My eyes were treated to a visual gastronomic spectacle unlike anything I have ever seen. Mouths watering, hubby and I sampled almost everything we saw. I was in foodie heaven. Unfortunately, they are quite strict when it comes to taking pictures, so I quickly snapped these when the vendor was busy...

"sandwiches" made of a batter with egg, flour and chopped cabbage (which tasted like coleslaw) filled with either shrimp or scallops

they looked like english muffin to me. the taste was interesting, like eating a vegatble patty. i found their seafood portions generous.

AFTER this feast we headed out to Yamanote to attend Mass. I must give special mention to the wafer-like host they offered at Mass. It was light, crispy and sweet. In other words, it was yummy! Like eating merienda biscuits! Goodness, hubby and I were startled by the taste and crunch. Who says spiritual nourishment has to be bland?

WE met up with fellow Pinoys after Mass and decided to have lunch at an eat-all-you-can Yakiniku place near Ginza. While walking towards the station we saw parked vans outside the Church and tables set up with Filipino food like kakanins, hotdog on sticks and pork barbeque. Seems like Sunday Mass is also an occasion to treat oneself to sorely-missed homemade Pinoy foodstuff. I even spied a Caucasian couple greedily eating their steaming hot arroz caldo from styrofoan bowls!

at the restaurant we piled our plates high with thinly-sliced raw meat, cuttlefish, chicken teriyaki skewers, fresh fruits, Japanese curry, stir-fried noodles, peanut noodles, udon, gyoza and salad. softdrinks were bottomless too. you grill everything and dip it in the special yakiniku sauce -sweetish and tangy. eat to your heart's content for the next 2 hours then off you go! each table is timed by the waitstaff so stuff your mouth while there's still time!

AFTER walking off that heavy meal around the prestigious, flamboyant area of Ginza, where we met a Mario brother standing outside a toy store and I spent a good 20 minutes salivating outside a French pastry shop, we headed to Odaiba. It's a waterfront area with shopping centers, amusement zones, a huge Ferris Wheel, the futuristic Fuji TV Headquarters, the Museum of Maritime Sciences housed in a massive vessel and Odaiba Marine Park. It also offers a stunning view of Rainbow Bridge (which looks like the Golden Gate Bridge). There's even a miniature Statue of Liberty. In the distance you can see Tokyo Tower (Japan's Eiffel). We took a scenic train to get there and spent some time in Aqua City and VenusFort. We visited a cavernous Toyota showroom, a Roman-themed mall, a vintage car museum, an arcade where little boy got to ride Thomas and of course, we relaxed in Starbucks.

i love their hot matcha tea. the white milky foam against the bright green tea against the black tray- lovely. and it sure helped beat the shivers.

jet-black chocolate marshmallow cookie. dense, sticky and decadent. lemon bar with a caramel coating. tart, not-too-sweet, soft and crumbly.

sakura chiffon cake. light pink, fluffy, with a touch of berry tartness.

a tonkatsu resto called Wako served this up to our group of ravenous tourists. the Japanese have mastered the art of frying, according to Jeffrey Steingarten my favorite food writer, and he's right! crisp on the outside, fork-tender and juicy on the inside with no trace of greasiness. the tonkatsu sauce, which is like their catsup, is just the right blend of sweet and pucker-up sour for me, with spice notes (from laurel, cinammon, cloves) thrown in. the shredded cabbage, steamed rice and miso soup with tiny clams the size of one's fingernails are bottomless. there's no sesame-seed grinding ceremony or seaweed and citrus salad dressing though unike in Tonkichi in HongKong (more about this on a later blog). i didn't even know there was a king of tonkatsu pork and that's the roundish fillet, which is pinkish in the center and melts in your mouth, until i ate at Tonkichi. the long pork strips i've known my entire life no longer have a hold on me. they are the jesters, not worthy of the tonkatsu throne.

fusion Japanese: chicken tonkatsu roulade with seaweed and cheese. very much like Chicken Cordon Bleu.

DAY 3, coming up soon, is street food and grocery shopping day. I am longing for Japan as I write this blog.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I had 8 days to tour Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan, 8 days to check out as many department store basement groceries as I could, 8 days to walk around the metropolis taking pictures of their solemn temple areas and tranquil gardens, 8 days to gorge myself on the 40+ restaurants I researched about, 8 days to explore all their famous food markets- make that 7 days if you count the flights back and forth-7 days to be a mom, wife, super tourist, shopper and eater. How can you pack an itinerary like this in 7 days? Go amazing race, of course, while trying to smell the flowers in between.

March 10 was the date of our scheduled 4-hour flight to Narita from Hongkong. I was awake at 4am, busy with last-minute packing, checking of passports and other details only a mom would bother about. We were at the airport just in time, and before long we were flying in clear blue skies to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Our arrival in Japan was hassle-free, despite warnings by friends that Immigration lines would be long. Perhaps we were lucky enough to miss the throng of arriving tourists. They spoke enough English at the airport so we were able to ride the correct airport limousine (a huge coaster-like bus with a toilet at the back) for the 1 1/2 hour trip to Shinjuku ( a crowded, shop-lined area famous for several tourist spots, skycrapers and entertainment options). We were met by my sister-in-law (SIL), a fashion student in Japan who, after a year of mastering the language, was to be our official guide.

Settling down at the 15-floor inn (a cross between a hotel and service apartment) in the heart of Shinjuku, right across SIL's impressive fashion school, was a breeze because of SIL's fluency. The room was tiny, but very modern. The bathroom was so compact it reminded me of an airplane toilet- but bigger. Everything was prepaid either at the reception or through the numerous prepaid machines around the inn. (Japan is the master of automation and vendo machines, after all), including phone calls, laundry, laundry detergent!, cigarettes, drinks (no mini bar in the rooms). There was no bellboy. We saved a lot by staying at this ultra modern place because what they save on labor reflects on their rates. For those who desire swankier, newer and bigger digs, Oakwood Apartments will do as well. Their rates are just slightly higher than where we stayed, although I suspect the rooms are roughly the same size.

Since it was close to dinnertime and we were famished, SIL brought us to her favorite izakaya, a dark place with private booths serving "pica-pica" and various kinds of beer and sake - a Japanese bar, in other words. We were early and had the place to ourselves, which was a good thing. The cigarette smoke from alcohol-guzzling salarymen would have made little boy cough. We ordered several plates to share. One was a grilled chicken platter composed of skewered chicken balls, wings, skin and breast meat. A crispy tuna dish arrived, coated in sesame seeds and deep-fried. Hmmmm, crunchy morsels! We throughly enjoyed the sizzlling teppanyaki beef with corn, whose buttery soy sauce tickled our tastebuds. There was grilled thinly-sliced pork neck, and an onion and lettuce salad served as an appetizer. We didn't try any sake though. We needed to keep our wits about us for the coming days...

After our merienda-cum-dinner we sought out the local McDonald's. Hubby misses his comfort food whenever we travel. I personally dislike eating at McDonald's wherever I may be, but they had an ebi burger and flakey chocolate pie that seemed interesting. I fell for the ebi burger simply because it was crisp on the outside, with whole, crunchy shrimp on the inside. THe texture was firm yet sticky and creamy at the same time. It wasn't fishy at all (unlike Fillet O' Fish in other countries). THe chocolate dessert reminded me of pop tarts. THe pie was very flaky and croissant-like, and from the middle oozed chocolate sauce. Not the Rolls-Royce of desserts, but it will satisfy anyone's sweet tooth. I ate ebi burger 2 more times before leaving, a record considering I can go a whole year without eating at McDonald's, amused as I was with its freshness and texture, and knowing it was only avalable in Japan.

The rest of the night was spent walking around the NSEW (North, South, East, West) exits of the Shinjuku train station. I will not even attempt to explain the craziness that is the Japan railway system. There are 20-plus exits to choose from, as many lines to decide on taking, and very, very little English to help one get by! Thank God for my SIL!

We strolled around the Takashimaya Times Square area, where the lines for Krispy Kreme snaked around the block despite the biting cold (I really don't get the obsession with this sugary donut, but that's just me). I spent a good hour in Kinokoniya, a seven or eight-floor bookstore which devotes half of the seventh floor to English titles. During the first few weeks of April, they put all the English books, both paperback and hardcover, as well as coffeetable books, on sale. And when I say sale, I mean SALE! I have given SIL several titles to purchase for me. Of course despite the normal prices I had to buy a few books, which I did on DAY 7 of the race... er trip. Little boy bought a CARS read-aloud book.

I remember we entered the huge GAP store at Lumine EST department store, and the items were all overpriced. Uniqlo (Japan's trendier Bench, Giordano or Old Navy) was our next stop. We also went to camera shops. The have an amazing array of cameras and cellphones in all possible price ranges! Some cameras are made for the Japan market only and will never see the light of day in other countries, unless a tourist buys one, in this case, me! More about the camera on DAY 5. Before heading back to the inn SIL and I bought a stick each of fresh, huge, Fukuoka strawberries, so red and juice and fake-looking in their smooth-skinned perfection! It was JPY200 for each stick (that's approximately PHP80 or HKD 13).

Walking around the many bars, restos and pachinko establishments under bright neon signs, we felt we were really in Tokyo. Below our hotel/inn is aconvenience store and we bought gyoza, cold soba and a chicken teriyaki bento box to eat as a midnight snack. We slept soundly that night, getting ourselves ready for the onslaught of activities SIL and I had planned.