Tokyo Day/Night 5 – Delving Deep into Japanese Culture

After waking with thankfully just a mild hangover from my whisky festivities the previous night, Chris and I decided to check out Ikeburkuro, an up and coming district a few metro stops away. I had also read that it was home to a very good ramen shop so that was first on the agenda. It was actually much warmer than yesterday but there was still a bit of breeze to make it more tolerable. Mutekiya was about a 15 minute walk from the station and when we got there around noon there was also a large line forming,

Mutekiya’s menu stated that they take 20 hours to create the broth for the ramen and use only the best roast pork. Typical with busy ramen shops like this one, we had our order taken in line and then waited for a seat to open up inside the cramped restaurant. We lucked out in that in only took about 15 minutes longer to get in and we sat down at the counter. I sighed as my legs didn’t come even close to fitting under, having to basically flex my feet and thighs into what felt like I was doing a leg exercise, not exactly comfortable.

Fortunately, the ramen made the pain worth it. There were massive chunks of melt in your mouth roasted pork, perfectly chewy noodles, two flavored eggs, vegetables all swimming in a fantastic broth. Now we knew why there was such a long line. We happily slurped away and kept our chats to mostly guttural noises in approval. I was freed from my leg torture, and we headed towards the center of the district.

Ikeburkuro is the center for female-based anime and magna. In order to check out this interesting sub-culture, we first went to the 9 story Animate! Store. Each level had a specific subject or type of media – DVD, comics, costumes/accessories. Not surprisingly, most of the people there were school age girls and a few boys. While it was interesting, we realized what we really wanted to see was in Akihabra – which was on the other end of the metro line.

In the meantime, we decided to finally check out one of the large Sega arcade centers, which we had seen all over town. This particular location seemed to be nicer than others we had seen while exploring Tokyo. The first level was mostly carnival type games and the upper levels were for arcade games. We saw a lot of blasts from the past, from Street Fighter to House of the Dead. However, there were also some very Japanese-specific games, including a horse racing game where mechanical model horses controlled by the gamers went around a large track. Chris got some footage of it here.

There was also a multi car Super Mario Kart so Chris and I took a turn at it. He won while I came in second. Still, the most unique touch came when I went to the bathroom. In front of the first urinal was a monitor with 2 characters in a typical fight game stance. As soon as I started to relieve myself, they sprung into action and started a fight. I looked down and sure enough there were instructions on where to aim. I was victorious!

It was pretty much impossible to top that bizarre experience so we headed back to the station to make the 30 minute train ride to Akihabara.

We exited the station and walked over to the main drag of Akihaba (as various signs called it) First up was their version of Animate!, which seemed to be geared more toward boys/guys. I didn’t recognize almost any of the titles on the various floors but it was still a fun way to experience such a critical part of Japanese pop culture. We also checked out a couple of arcades but they weren’t quite as good as the one in Ikeburkuro. Plus, we wanted to try and avoid the crush of rush hour so we made our way back to Shinjuku.

For our Last Supper, we thought it would be fun to check out this yakiniku centered around wagyu beef that was two doors down from our hotel. In a yakiniku, you cook your own food over a charcoal grill that is in the center of the table. They presented us with 2 different combination menus along with ala carte pricing. Our server also turned on the grill, which started to heat up very quickly. It was a no brainer to go with the wagyu special, which consisted of wagyu spare ribs, loin, tongue along with some spiced chicken, vegetables and some slab bacon.


The beef was sliced thin enough that it would be virtually impossible to mess it up. We started out with the spare ribs, which had been lightly pre-seasoned. The meat cooked fast and within a couple of minutes we had our first taste. It was unbelievably tender and enhanced greatly by that one of a kind Japanese charcoal. Next we tried the loin, which was also superb. However, the real winner was the tongue. I’m normally not a fan as it tends to be a bit tough or chewy. This though simply melted in my mouth with a deep flavor.


We next cooked both some mushrooms and the chicken thighs – both great but no wagyu. In a matter of minutes, we had gone through all of the wondrous beef. Chris wasn’t sated yet so he ordered the thick tongue since the thing one was so good. I only had a piece but it was superb. He asked for a final suggestion and our server at first recommended the rare loin cut but then came back to say it was sold out. Chris instead got another order of the other loin cut, and I enjoyed watching him ooh and ahh with pleasure with his meat paradise.


My sweet tooth needed attention and after asking our server for somewhere to go, we ended up at Baskin and Robins, which was a short walk from the hotel. I wanted to try something that you could only get in Japan but nothing was in English so played it say with some cherry burgundy. It was a nice capper to our last full day/night in Tokyo, and we complemented ourselves for going out in style.


Tokyo Day/Night 4 – Pancakes and Japanese Whisky (not together)

The weather had finally turned for the better in Tokyo so it was time to go explore some more. Chris had headed over to Ebisu to get some designer jeans and the plan was to meet up in near-by Harajuku for lunch. I made the now routine trek to the metro station and boarded for the short trip. Unfortunately, I realized too late that this particular train wasn’t stopping in Harajuku so I had to go to Shibuya station and then schlep over to the other side of the station to catch the train going to Harajuku.

That put me a bit behind schedule by the time I got to the station but fortunately the restaurant wasn’t too far away. I had read about the pancake trend in Tokyo and while the hot spot was Eggs N Things that was actually a Hawaiian chain so I wanted something more Japanese. Enter Pancake Days.

I made my way down a series of cute alleyways that felt more European than Japanese and soon arrived at Pancake Days. As the name implies, the restaurant is all about pancakes – both savory and sweet. It was the former that had led me there as I had never had a savory pancake. Located on the second floor, there was a small line out the door but since Chris was running late, it wasn’t a big deal. Plus, in the meantime, I got to watch the chef make pancakes behind the glass.

One thing that was immediately clear was that I was a bit of an odd presence there. Not only was I the only gaijin. I was the only male and the oldest person by probably 20 years. Surrounded by girls in their school uniforms and slightly older teenage girls, I felt a bit like a perv but hey, guys like pancakes too! There was no English menu but the pictures were pretty clear. I had also read about a specific croque monsieur pancake so I knew what to look for on it, and hey, it came with smiley face potatoes.

Essentially a riff of the famous French sandwich, this version used the pancakes as the bread, with layers of ham between and then a Bechamel sauce poured over the top. It was delicious. The pancakes were light and fluffy, and devoid of the usual butter/syrup, worked perfectly as a savory vessel. It was good enough that I wanted to see what a sweet version tasted like. I saw what appeared to crème brulee and comically failed in my attempt to ask if that’s what it was. My server fetched someone who at least understood English and sure enough that’s what it was.

Chris soon after arrived and opted for the maple cream pancakes. A few minutes later my pancakes arrived. The top of the pancakes were indeed bruleed and had that great crunch on top. The pancakes had been sweetened with vanilla and there was a chantilly whipped cream on the side. Outstanding.


After lunch, we headed into Harajuku, which is one of the main shopping areas in Tokyo. There were two very distinct parts. The main street was lined with the usual high-end stores, including a very fancy indoor mall. On the outskirts of this were a series of smaller streets where the more hip and trendy boutiques were located. While not Sunday, which is the primary people watching day there, the mix of urbanites and hipsters was amusing.

The plan for that night was to finally hit the lovely named Piss Alley, which is basically the food equivalent of the Golden Gai, and then to go to a “shot bar” that specialized in Japanese whisky. Unfortunately, Chris was down for the count so I decided to fly solo. Piss Alley isn’t exactly easy to find as it turned out even with its proximity to Shinjuku. After a few failed attempts, I found a kind older man who was helping out another tourist who funny enough were looking for Robot Restaurant. After he was done with them, I asked him for directions. He said he would show me and walked me over to where the entrance was, exclaiming “I have to get home soon!” He had made a vow long ago to help any tourist who was lost but I was the last one for tonight.


The entrance was pretty much how I pictured it would be. The smell of the various grills made my mouth water and in a daze, I headed down one of the streets packed to the gills with people munching on meat and other things on sticks. With no real set location in mind, I ended up picking one that had an empty seat and was exposed to the open air since it was such a nice night. The youngish man in charge of the grill asked me if I can eat pork (Can I?!?) and I took a seat at the end of the counter.



I was right in front of the charcoal grill so I watched for awhile as he tended to various pork goodness on a stick, mesmerized by his skill at expertly turning them at just the right time. There was no menu but rather a large plate with all of the things they would cook – from pork loin to innards to vegetables wrapped in bacon. I started out with 2 sticks of pork, which were perfectly seasoned and fantastic.


Next I went with a bunch of enoki mushroom that were bundled together with a strip of bacon. For this one, he first dunked the mushrooms in a large cauldron of pork stock for a couple of minutes before adding them to the grill. At the last moment, he brushed some soy sauce on and then kissed it back on the grill.

With just a stick as my only utensil, it proved at first to be a bit challenging to eat as it was a ton of mushroom stems to chew threw. Eventually I figured out to treat it like it were ramen noodles, unwrapping the bacon and slurping them up. They may have been the single best thing I’ve had on my trip so far – incredible.


I ended with another veggie wrapped in bacon – green beans this time. No dunking required for this, just a quick grill followed by the soy and kiss back on the grill. The green beans were wonderfully crispy and the bacon added the right amount of salt to the smoky flavor overall. As a lover of yakitori, this was as good as it gets. A mere $13 for the whole thing to boot.

The next challenge was to figure out how to get to the whisky bar. I had a very crude map from their site but this turned out to be almost useless as none of the markers were in English. I wandered around for a good half hour before Google Maps finally started to play nice and tell me that I was a mere 92 feet away. Thankfully, I recongized the eye logo as there was nothing indicating it was called Zoetrope. I took the elevator to the fourth floor and walked through the ornate gold door.


The owner was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and welcomed me to sit down after informing of the cover charge and lack of credit cards. I had come with plenty of cash so this wasn’t a big deal. The bar had over 300 Japanese whisky by the shot as well as a few tasting options. I opted for the intriguingly named Suntory vs. Nikka Single Malt tasting. He began to set up the tasting and explained how Nikka was a relatively new distillery that had just started distribution in the US.


I was to start with the Suntory ones first, which included the familiar 12 year The Yamazaki along with 2 I had never had. The latter two were by far the most interesting, especially the last one which was a single grain whisky – basically their equivalent of a rye whisky. I then proceeded to the Nikka ones. The first one was similar to the last Suntory in that it was also a single grain except this one was a cofee grain. It had a very clean and potent taste, with more pronounced alcohol profile than the Suntory counterpart. The next two were the real winners though.

The first, called Miyagiko had a wonderful smoky flavor but not overpoweringly so. It was then that I realized the owner had purposefully made me try the Nikka ones last as he clearly preferred them. He smiled and admitted that was the case. The final one Yoichi had a slightly sweeter taste but was also excellent. I decided to get one full shot as a nightcap and since we had been discussing our mutual love for Kentucky single barrel bourbon, he suggested I try a bottle made specifically for his 3rd anniversary, which was a whisky blend that had been finished in rum barrels. It did indeed taste a lot like a good Kentucky bourbon and was a great way to end the night. I said my goodbyes to the salary men in the corner and the French couple who I had insisted try Midori Sushi the next day. Tomorrow was the last hurrah in Tokyo and I intended to go out in style.

Tokyo – Night 3 – From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

After the near religious of experience of Midori Sushi, now it was time for… something completely different – Robot Restaurant.  Kind of speaks for itself no?  Oh hell no!  Even the clips I had seen on Anthony Bourdain’s show and the blog articles I had read did not, nay could not, prepare Chris and I for the awesome power that is Robot Restaurant.

on the way to robot resto

Even the walk towards it was surreal enough as we made the short walk through Kabukicho.  This was a mere block away from our hotel and yet it was our first time walking into the heart of this infamous part of Shinjuku.  We soon arrived at the entrance, which featured a woman riding around on a robot that looked like a giant woman, a terrible rock band dressed in robot gear and a bunch of confused tourists trying to make sense of it all.

We were then escorted to a waiting lounge as they finished preparing for the show.  The decor would have made Liberace blush but at least the chairs were comfortable.  Another unique aspect of this room was the mechanical baby dinosaur that was walking around on our table, with instructions on how to pet and play with it.

After about 20 minutes, we were told to head downstairs to the main floor.  Picking up our reserved bento box, we took our seats, which were on the 2nd row in the middle.  It seemed to be a good viewing location for the madness we expected to unfold.  This proved to be true but the madness was way more than could have been imagined.  Chris captured on video how it started:

After that impressive intro, there was a short break while they got the next segment together where a woman playing a flute was wheeled in with a robot backing band.

RR 1

The video monitors that lined the walls started a story that had something to do with robots attacking a Japanese island from long ago… I think.  This involved first a group of native islanders in masks being defeated by robots and then Amazon warrior like princesses trying the same thing.  Both attempts sadly failed but then suddenly what appeared to be a rip off the Kung Fu Panda heroes burst through the gates on a giant animatronic cow – yes, I’m serious.

They too were vanquished so the gods of the sea summoned a giant shark, which was moving its jaws as it charged towards the robots.  The Big Bad of the robots was soon in its jaws and as the shark chomped down on it, firecrackers went off in its mouth to indicate the robot had been killed.  Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds but Chris and I were laughing too much to get any photographic or video evidence.  However, I found someone else’s clip on YouTube that basically captures it.

After another break with flute girl and her robot band, the girls of Robot Restaurant came back to theme from Dreamgirls, some with drums, some with cymbals and two on stripper poles that had giant robot legs to move them around the floor.  It only got stranger from there.  Behold, robots dancing to Gangman Style!

For the grand finale, the girls came back along with these 3 massive robots and a few other odd thing all crammed on the floor.  They had given us glowsticks and the leader of the dance troop in rapid Japanese and broken English implored us to wave them around like we just didn’t care.


Still trying to process what in the Hell we had just witnessed, they turned on the house lights and told us we could take a picture with one of the 3 giant robots.  When in Kabuchiko….

RR steve

As we staggered out along with the other stunned patrons, we all realized we had just witnessed the most unique show we’ll probably ever attend.  And we loved every second of it.

Tokyo – Day 3 – Sushi from Heaven

After back to back long nights, it took a bit of motivation to get at it again.  Fortunately, the proverbial carrot on the stick was the promise of some mind-blowing sushi.  So, despite the lousy weather and our tiredness, we made the pilgrimage back to Shibuya Station to Sushi Midori.

We had been warned about the long lines but had been assured it moves pretty quickly.  Located on the 4th floor of a large mall in the middle of a food court, it was pretty obvious once we got there.  The line extended down a hallway where we joined up with the rest of the people waiting.


Fortunately as promised, the line did indeed start to move shortly thereafter.  There was apparently a time limit for customers so a steady flow of people were leaving on a fairly regular basis.  After about 45 minutes, we reached the front of the line and were escorted into the restaurant.  It turned out to be a lot larger than I thought, with a huge sushi counter and tables crammed together.  We lucked out and got 2 seats at the very end of the sushi counter and were presented with a menu.  While the pictures themselves looked amazing, the insanely cheap prices explained the long line.


I decided to get the chef’s special and Chris opted for the sushi special.  While we waited for the chef to prepare our dishes, we were given a small salad with a crab paste sauce and chunks of crab meat (delicious), a very tasty miso soup and best of all a superb charwanmushi, which is a savory egg custard with mushrooms. We also watched another chef prepare what seemed to be some ala carte selections for the people next to us.


Chris furtively captured our chef in action.

After about 10 agonizing minutes, the chef handed over this work of art to Chris


And then mine shortly followed.


Since there was no English explanation of each piece, in a couple of cases I’m not entirely sure of each fish I had but they included yellowtail, salmon roe, a tuna handroll, razor clam, halibut, prawn, egg and a huge slice of cooked eel.  It was far and away the best sushi I had ever tasted.  Each piece of fish essentially melted in my mouth with such a pure, clean flavor.  The rice was slightly warm with just the right amount of wasabi.  Pure heaven.


While I was fairly full, I knew I had to have at least a couple of pieces of the amazing looking salmon that I had seen our chef slicing.  As you can see from the photo, the amount of salmon per piece was absurd and of course turned out to be the best salmon nigir I had ever tasted.  After about 30 minutes, we called for the check and were dumbfounded that all of it added up to only $35 USD!  I left the restaurant gobsmacked and so grateful I got to experience such an amazing meal.

Tokyo – Day/Night 2 – Shibuya 2 Electric Boogaloo

A combination of a late night and not great weather led to a late start to our 2nd day in Tokyo.  We once again took the short metro ride to Shibuya, this time to check it out in the day time and explore the area in more detail.  We once again marveled at the controlled chaos that is the main crosswalk into Shibuya.  Chris got some great video of the process.

We started our crawl at the famous 109 Women’s store, which is considered the epicenter of young women’s fashion in Japan.  A massive cylindrical building that consists of 9 floors of various stores, it was quite the scene.  Soon though, we began to feel a bit…awkward about being two adult males wandering around stores clearly not for us.

Next, we walked over to the large DIY store called Tokyu Hands, which had been recommended to us by several people.  We had actually been to its Osaka location and didn’t quite get the hype.  Now though, with a much larger version, we saw its odd charm.  I read that it’s basically Home Depot if it was run by Japanese hipsters and that’s pretty accurate.  Each floor has a different focus – travel, home care, even trains/models.  Another amusing touch is that there is no escalator and on each step, it shows how many calories you’ve burned by that point.  Chris ended up getting a bunch of fun stickers that were being sold in a pop up store within the store.


After a couple of hours of wandering, we went back to the hotel to rest up for the big night ahead.  I had secured tickets for one of my favorite DJs, Francois K, who happened to be in town at a club called AIR, which had been recommended to check out.  First though, it was time to explore more of the Golden Gai.

One of the items on my Japanese food hit list was karaage – their version of fried chicken.  As luck turned out, the first bar we walked past in the Golden Gai seemed to specialize in it.  Even better, there was an open table.  Like the other bars in the area, it was quite eclectic.  For some reason, on an old flat screen TV which had a large crack in it, was showing what appeared to be a karaoke game show from the early 80s.  There were also many pictures of karaage, including a poster that proclaimed “Karaage will change the world.”  It was clear we had come to the right place.

The only slight downside is that it took quite a long time to get my precious karaage.  In the meantime, I opted to try a local beer called Hoppy in something the menu listed as a Black/White.  I assumed that meant it was similar to say a Black and Tan but when a large mug arrived with a white liquid in ice, that thought went out of the window.  It turned out the white was sake and I was to pour the beer over it.  Not exactly what I was expecting but quite tasty, especially when the karaage finally arrived.  It was well worth the wait with a delicious soy-based crispy crust and juicy boneless chicken inside.


I wanted to check it out at least one bar before heading over to the club so we walked two alleys over to Cambiere, whose theme was based on the Italian horror movie classic “Suspiria.”  After climbing a very steep, very small staircase, we opened the door to find a truly wonderful recreation of themes from the movie – from the deep red color to the specific wallpaper featured in it.  The drink menu was small so I selected the sangria, which was pretty lousy but potent.  We wanted to avoid the pending rain so we said our goodbyes and took off for Shibuya Station.

cambieresteve cambiere2

After getting to Shibuya Station, this time our route would be to the opposite end of the area.  The rain started to come down a bit harder so we hoped that we would reach the club soon.  We snaked down a long road filled with bars and restaurants and finally arrived at the club.  Interestingly though, the entrance was actually what seemed to be a pretty chill lounge, far from what we thought the club would look like.  This turned out though simply to be the lobby and after getting our names checked on the list, we were escorted down a set of stairs.  The club was essentially the inverse of Womb in that the main floor was at the bottom with two other rooms further up.

It was just after midnight and the club was already starting to fill up.  They were running a special 2 for 1 drinks before 12:30 so we got some pre-show cocktails and grabbed some seats as Francois K wouldn’t be going on until 2AM.  The main room DJ was kind of all over the place but played some good tracks.  The dancefloor looked to hold about 400 people or so and the sound system was fantastic.  As we were waiting, Chris ended up chatting with some very cool locals who were big Francois K fans.  One had seen him over 100 times because he used to work for his record label.

When Francois K finally came on, he did not disappoint, weaving his unique mix of styles from house to techno to a bit of everything else in between.  At one point early into his set, he played the instantly recognizable Frankie Knuckles remix of “Where Love Lives” to the screams of the crowd, acknowledging the recent passing of that icon house music figure.  Although his set was to last until 9AM, by 4AM my body started to rebel, making me into one sore pile of creaky bones.  It killed me to leave but we sprinted in the rain for the nearest cab and headed home.  World class sushi and women with giant robots lay ahead tomorrow so strength would be needed.

Tokyo – Day/Night 1 – Into the Belly of the Beast

We said our final goodbyes to our lovely machiya and took at cab to Kyoto Station to catch a shinkasen to Tokyo.  After an uneventful 2.5 hour ride, we transferred to the Yamanote line for a few stops to get to Shinjuku Station.  Our hotel web site said that the hotel was a mere 8 minute walk from Shinjuku Station so despite our luggage, we figured it would be easy to walk there.

Our first mistake was that we didn’t know just how big Shinjuku Station is – as in the busiest train station in the world with over 2 millions people using it on a daily basis.  We attempted to find the East exit as suggested by the hotel but somehow ended up in the New South exit.  By now it was approaching 2PM and my lack of food was starting to become a problem.  Thanks to Chris’ patience and Google Maps 30 minutes later we finally found our hotel.

After a quick check-in and drop-off of our luggage, we hit the streets looking for food.  One problem – almost everything was closed.  We eventually ended up at a shop close to the hotel that specialized in tatoyaki.  I vaguely remembered hearing that term before but it turned out to be octopus balls – no not those balls but rather a croquette type ball with chunks of cooked octopus.  It was surprisingly tasty and with an ice cold Kirin, hit the spot for my tired, hungry body.


Finally fed, we made a quick stroll around our neighborhood and discovered that we were right next to the famous Golden Gai, which is a series of interconnecting alleys that house 200 tiny (as in most seat 6-8 people) bars each with their own unique theme.

None of course were open since it was in the middle of day but we made sure that would be our first stop later in the evening.  After some more relaxation time, we made a short trip down the block to a restaurant called Seiyru, which had been there since 1858.  It was a large cavernous restaurant filled with sallarymen drinking way too much sake and beer, and their disapproving girlfriends/wives.  It was very amusing and the food – yakitori for Chris and noodle for me – was very good.

We then looped back to the Golden Gai to start our exploration.  I had read that a lot of the bars don’t let in foreigners or are private clubs.  However, there were supposedly many that would welcome us.  After a failed attempt of finding one bar that had been recommended, we came across Albatross, which I had read about in several guides.  Fortunately, it was early in the evening so we were able to get seats around a very small, cramped table.  There was a 500 yen seat charge, but that is typical of the Golden Gai.

There wasn’t a theme per se with the bar but the disco ball and the great deep house music made it a lot of fun.  I saw they had Suntory on the menu for one of the whiskeys so I opted for that.  Hey, it was only 600 yen so I figured why not?  It tasted like, well, a 600 yen Scotch i.e. not great.  Still, the music was fantastic and there was a very nice chill vibe to the place.  We vowed to come back another time and made our way to the next bar.


As you might guess from the picture above, this bar’s theme was horror – Death Match from Hell! Inside was horror fan’s ultimate tree house.  The entire bar was stacked floor to ceiling with horror movie posters, trinkets, toys and other assorted props.  Japanese death metal was the music choice and the flat screen TV was showing Fulci’s Zombi 2.  There was no seat charge here so I opted to splurge a bit and get a bottle of sake.

Sitting next to us was an expat from Ukraine who had been here for 4 years and an Aussie traveler who was amazed that I was drinking sake straight from the bottle.  Both were extremely nice and I shared my sake with them in the spirit of the Golden Gai tradition.  We needed to head out to Shibuya so we said our goodbyes and made plans to check out more of the Golden Gain in the nights ahead.

Finally, it was time to go to the techno music club Mecca known as Womb.  After an assist by two drunken but incredibly helpful sallarymen, we took the quick subway right to Shibuya Station.  Right in front of the station is the world famous massive crosswalk, where seemingly hundreds of people pass each other on diagonal slants that somehow don’t end up in bodily injuries.  The entire area was lit up with huge LED screens and flashing lights everything.  THIS was the Tokyo I had imagined before coming here.

We winded our way through a series of streets where “love hotels” were king and arrived at a large concrete building where Womb is located.  After paying the 3500 yen entry fee, we were escorted into a large dark room throbbing with bass.  One of the last remaining clubs to feature the fabled Phazon sound system, Womb is a destination for any serious clubber.

The first thing that was readily apparent was that the crowd was decidedly more mixed with foreigners than anywhere else we had been.  It reminded me a lot of the clubs in Ibiza in that sense as well as the up for anything vibe of it.  We walked up a couple of levels, where other DJs were playing in side rooms, and watched the main floor from the top level.

It was now a bit after 1AM and the main room was packed.  We pushed our way to the center of the floor and got the full Phazon treatment with the deep bass vibrating all around us.  As a fan of old skool clubs with dark, minimal lighting and no effin bottle service, I was in heaven.  It was a local techno DJ spinning who seemed to have a dedicated following.  I stayed glued to the dancefloor for the next 2 hours or so reveling in the spirit of this fantastic club.  Still, the toll of travel and all of the walking we had done began to mount and it was time to go.

Catching a cab was surprisingly easy… communicating where we needed to go, not so much.  After failed attempts of showing the driver the map to the hotel and gesturing wildly, we somehow set off in the seemingly right direction.  Soon after, he started talking to us in Japanese, which of course we had no idea what he was saying.  We eventually made a game of it, responding back with equal jibberish to hm like “Yes, I do think the Ukraine situation is serious” and “I’ve also heard good things about the new Captain America movie.”

Amazingly, he got us back to the hotel, which is located on the edge of Tokyo’s red light district.  Since it was well past the witching hour, the scene by our hotel had become quite different but very amusing.  We passed by a couple of touts (people trying to get you to come into various go go bars) and made the short walk back to the hotel.  Another long day/night lay ahead so it was time for some sleep.

Final Night in Kyoto – Cherry Blossoms, Carnival Games and Geishas

After the epic meal at Kikunoi and some much needed rest, we ventured forth to Maruyuma Park to check out the fun and frivolity there thanks to the sakura.  Since we had been there the night before, this time we came prepared with the remainder of our sake from lunch.  We wandered around the various booths set up, grabbing some delicious (and in my case, giant) yakitori and found a spot in the middle of the action to people watch.

In the center of the park was a massive cherry tree that looked quite stunning at night illuminated by some floodlights.

After our dinner and sake, we headed down to something we had seen the night before and wanted to definitely check out – a haunted house.  Fueled by the sake, we braved our way through a spooooky maze, which mostly consisted of poorly costumed “monsters” missing most of their cues to jump out at us.  The whole thing was incredibly silly but fun.

Since it was our last night in Kyoto, we walked down to near-by Gion in hopes of perhaps spotting a geisha.  It had started to drizzle a bit so we knew our exploring would be short.  While waiting at the light to cross into one of the main alleys of Gion, which is lined with private clubs where the geisha’s go with their clients, we noticed something across the street.

Jackpot.  More than likely a maiko (geisha in training), her mannerisms and deference to people looking at her made it pretty clear this wasn’t someone in dress up for the tourists.  As we crossed the street, she looked away from the gawkers and quickly made her way down the street.

The rain now was starting to come down a lot harder so hiked up the hill to our machiya.  Tomorrow would be time to finally get to Tokyo and we needed all of the rest we could get.

Kaiseki at Kinkunoi – A Lunch Fit for an Emperor

It was finally the day I had literally been preparing for months.  Through our machiya manager, I had been lucky enough to secure a reservation at the world famous Kikunoi restaurant for a multi-course meal known as a kaiseki.  A favorite of top chefs around the globe, it is considered THE place for a true kaiseki experience.  I had been warned in advance that we probably would have counter seating versus a private room but that wasn’t a big deal as we’d be closer to the master himself that way.

It was a bit more cloudy as we took the 30 minute walk to the restaurant but seemed like more people than ever were snapping photos of the temples and shrines on the route.  We went around a corner to a very traditional Japanese building and were greeted by an old man who instructed us to remove our shoes.  He was soon joined by a woman in a kimono who bowed and told us to follow her.  We made our way through a maze like set of rooms and came to a private room facing a pretty courtyard.  We had gotten one of the rooms after all.

There was a low table with cushions and a support for the back.  I actually knew the drill here and swung my legs underneath the table where there was a heated pit to rest our legs.  Amazingly it fit!

Keiseke room

In front of us was a black round tray and a small flat bowl.  Our server poured something into the bowl and explained that it was a welcome sake made with cherry blossoms.  It was definitely different than a typical sake with a nice spice kick to it.  We decided to get a 720ml bottle of sake for lunch and chose the less expensive of the two.  I figured it would probably still be excellent, and it was – very light and refreshing but still with that unique punch sake can give you.


The door opened and there was another woman in a kinomo who said in broken English that she was the chef’s daughter.  She presented us with the menu we would be having today and set down a book that explained the various dishes, which had been published a few years ago with a forward by Feran Adria.



The first course soon arrived in a very beautiful wood carved box and inside was this true work of art.


I won’t list each component as the full menu is above but everything was delicious.  The true stars though were the red sea bream roll and the mountain yam shaped like a butterfly.  So clean and pure.

Soon after we finished, the next course came – ah, finally some sashimi – the red sea bream again along with some stunning Spanish mackerel.


This was quickly followed by more sashimi and the biggest of them all – belly of blue fin tuna (maguro) with a piquant soy mustard sauce.  Like buttah.


Next we switched to a hot course – tilefish steamed in cherry leaf with sticky rice.  The fish was perfectly tender and the clumps of sticky rice made for a nice texture contrast.  It was also the first time I had bamboo root, which tasted like a steamed potato with a bit more of a woody flavor.  Delicious.


After some more sake and a chance to catch our breaths, my favorite course of the day arrived – grilled halibut with egg yolk.  The yolk had been turned into a fine yellow powder scattered on top of the thick filet of halibut.  The meat was thick but not chewy, with a slight hint of the charcoal from the grilling.  There was also a small bowl of a local plant called udo in a rich soy sauce.  A truly stunning dish.


I had been looking forward to the palette cleanser since seeing it on the menu – strawberry-wasabi sorbet.  As Chris correctly pointed out, it taste pretty much what you would think that combo would – the wasabi wasn’t overpowering but added an interesting element of heat.


Our next course was the only real miss of the meal.  A seaweed salad with shredded mountain yam.  To me, it was a texture thing.  I did enjoy the yam though so it wasn’t a total loss.


Fortunately the ship was righted with the next dish – a pot of steamed bamboo shoot, a different type of seaweed, our friend the red sea beam and rapini, which wasn’t something I was expecting to find.  This was a much larger piece of bamboo, which tasted even better than the previous incarnation due to the rich broth that the sea bream helped develop.  I also quite enjoyed the seaweed as it wasn’t nearly as slimy in this preparation.


Our final savory course was another winner – see the full description above – but the highlights were the fantastic prawn dumpling, which was one of the best I’ve ever had and amazingly enough for me as I’m not usually a fan, the pea soup.  I think I liked it because that’s where the dumpling was so the prawn flavor permeated the soup.


By this point, I was pretty sated but since the last and only sweet course was my all time favorite ice cream – pistachio – along with a mango soup, I figured I could squeeze in a bit more.  The ice cream was heavenly and while mango is pretty much my least favorite fruit, it complemented well with the pistachio flavor.

We had actually only drank about a bit over half of our bottle of sake so our server kindly put the bottle not only in a bag but also wrapped it in bubble tape – full service indeed.  We said our goodbyes and made our way to the exit, reveling in the amazing experience.  Tonight would be time for more hanami fun but in the meantime, a much needed nap was in order.

Chefs daughter

Kyoto Day 3 – Covering the city from end to end

Blessed with once again near perfect weather and with an iffy forecast ahead, we decided to hit two of the major items on our list – Philosopher’s Walk and the bamboo forest of Arishiyama on the other side of town.  We arrived at the beginning of the Philosopher’s Walk a bit after 9AM, which proved to be wise as it was already teeming with people.

Named after a philosophy professor from the near-by Kyoto University, the path was a beautiful cherry tree lined walk above a small river below.  Some locals appeared to be having their morning stroll amongst foreign tourists and Japanese tourists dressed in traditional garb.  It made for quite the people watching.  We walked the entire path, ending up on a large street that led toward the university.

As we crossed into the surrounding campus, we noticed these large wooden signs which appeared to be advertisements to join various college clubs – from alpine climbing to dancing and pretty much everything in between.  A few of the favorites we saw:

After yet another fruitless attempt to have a cab driver take us to a specific address, which led to him kicking us out of the cab, we opted to hoof it as we discovered we actually weren’t that far away.

Chris was jonesing for some more wagyu beef and since I hadn’t had that yet, I had found a place known for it, at a very reasonable price, called Hafuu.  We had actually tried to locate it the day before to get a reservation but it was closed.  After a couple of false alarms, we finally found it tucked away on a quite side street.  The counter seating was already gone but they had a small dining room in the back.  That would be more that acceptable as it was finally a real table with real chairs!

The restaurant is owned by a family who also has a butcher shop.  This, they explained, is why they can sell wagyu for a lot less than other places.  We both ordered the wagyu sirloin, which was a very reasonable $40 USD.  This would also include some sides in a typical bento-style lunch.

Soon a glorious plate of freshly grilled marbled beef appeared in front of us along with rice, some pickled ginger, miso soup and a salad.  All of these sides were familiar of course but a far superior version than a typical bento box.  I particularly enjoyed the hand cut noodles.  And oh yeah, the beef. Well, take a look at this slice of heaven.

Yes, it was delicious and over oh too soon.

We had to locate the 11 bus, which would take us to Arashiyama, which proved to be a bit farther walk than though.  We finally found the proper bus stop and boarded shortly thereafter.  Fortunately, it was the beginning of the route so I was able to get the coveted (well for me) seat in the back with lots of legroom.  We headed out of downtown Kyoto and towards the mountains off in the distance.  Along the way, we enjoyed the sing song stylings of the bus driver announcements and watched as the landscape changed from the modern to the traditional.

We exited the bus to truly feel like we were in another time and place.  A large river, deep green in color, was before us, with boats slowly gliding along and a bank filled with people strolling along it.  This turned out to be the entrance to the bamboo forest and soon we were hiking up a few hundred feet to get to this fabled landscape.  There were of course  many cherry trees along the way but at least at first not that much bamboo.

This soon changed though as we rounded the corner known as the Path of the Bamboo.  In front of us were massive bamboo trees reaching up into the sky, blotting out most of the mid-day sun.  This continued for almost a mile as the path waved its way around these majestic trees.  Truly one of the more beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

Chris was impressed.

And I was glad to just finally be able to completely stretch for a change.

At the end of the path was a small village designed to look like feudal Japan and while a bit chintzy, dammed if it didn’t really feel like I was looking into the far past with Toshiro Mifune and his samurai brothers peering back at me.  We made the loop around the rest of the surrounding park and got some spectacular views along the way.

Finally, as my back and feet started to rebel loudly, we made it back on the bus for the long ride home.  It was pretty much the perfect day and made me understand why so many people love it here.

Kyoto Night 2 – Yakitori, Carnival Games and Missing Geishas

After our short respite, we walked down the hill to a restaurant that had been suggested by the couple we met at the previous night’s dinner.  Chicken yakitori is one of my favorite Japanese dishes so I was really looking forward to trying the real deal.

The restaurant was a small, very funky little spot with the usual counter layout as well as a few low tables.  The smell of charcoal grilled meat filled the air, making me a happy camper.  I noticed the menu had a few cuts of chicken I had never had – skewered or otherwise.  Curious, I opted for both the traditional thigh with leeks, broiled chicken skin along with the not to traditional, neck and hip pieces.  All were superb.  So good in fact that I failed in my food porn duties of capturing a single shot.  Sorry about that!

Filled with meat formerly on sticks, we decided to go check out Maruyama Park, which was supposed to be hosting a large hanamii – basically a party underneath the cherry trees when they blossom.  The park was quite beautiful, with many of the trees lit up along the main path.  It looked though as things were winding down as many people were getting ready to leave.  Bummed we had missed it, we kept walking up the trail and soon realized it was far from over.

Up at the top of the path was a full festival setup, complete with food stands – meats on stick natch, pop-up bars and carnival games.  There were hundreds of people in various states of sobriety, clearly enjoying the hanami.  Still, we got the sense that we had probably missed the apex and decided to go back another night a bit earlier.

We left the park and walked into Gion, which is the entertainment district of Kyoto.  It is also one of the older parts of the city and is basically untouched from days of yore.  We wandered down several alleys, which were stacked with mysterious looking bars that were clearly not for gaijin.  Behind them were probably the fabled geishas but the only ones visible to us were tourists playing dress up.

Knowing we had an action-packed day planned for tomorrow, we opted to go home and check out Gion in more detail later.