Monthly Archives: January 2012

Japan, smoking and endless laundry

Endless laundry has quickly become the biggest bane of life on the road. No sooner have you drip dried seven pairs of boxer shorts, the time has once again come around to start praying that the next place you’re staying has proper washing facilities. It’s that or moving into the dangerous world of underwear recycling. And just 13 days in, it’s way too early for me to consider that.

But what’s made laundry particularly difficult here in Japan is smoking. Prior to fags being banned indoors in the UK, I never really regarded myself as a militant anti-smoker. But I’ve somehow become one of the crushing bores who coughs meekly every time someone nearby sparks up.

Here, it’s a real issue. Walking in the street, ciggy in hand, is banned in many parts of Tokyo and Kyoto. But duck into almost every bar or restaurant and there are at least two people smoking.

A smell which is now pretty much alien to me in indoor public spaces back home has come to dominate everything we do. At one restaurant in Hakone last week, a diner at the same table as us lit up while we ate, then proceeded to dock his tab when his food arrived, before lighting up the stub for a post-meal drag. Of course, I could have said something, but being British I went for the traditional passive aggressive approach and just moaned to Keeley instead.

Japan is seemingly in love with smoking. 40 per cent of the population are addicted and cigarettes are freely available for around £4 for twenty from street corner vending machines, half of the cost in the UK. Cigarette advertising, something that died out years ago in Britain, is still prevalant on Japanese billboards.

That such a healthy nation still allows smoking inside surprises me no end, especially as most European countries and many parts of the US took steps to outlaw it years ago. But more pressingly (and selfishly) right now, my clothes reek as if I have a 40-a-day habit. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to nip to the local laundromat and scrub my sorry clobber clean.

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Best burger in Japan – the search begins

Despite (or perhaps because of) our recent dabbling at the more extreme end of Japanese cuisine, Keeley and I have begun the search for Tokyo’s (and Japan’s) best burger. Ably abetted by our good friends James, Joe and Tom, over in Japan for a holiday, we have spent the past few days traipsing the streets of one of the world’s biggest cities in search of the kind of sustenance only a slab of ground meat in a bap can provide.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Having pumped 300 yen into a web connected PC in a Ginza department store and checked out Time Out’s authoritative Tokyo burger round up, as well as Metropolis’s wide-ranging guide, we set out for Burger 5, a small joint near Ginza station.

Address and map in hand, we struck out. And promptly got lost. Having gabbled a request for directions at staff manning a department store entrance, we were pointed in the right direction by a bridal suite manager, fetched to help thanks to his impressive English. Two hours after we’d scanned the web, we arrived at our destination. Only to be given ‘X factor arms’ by a restaurant proprietor, signalling Burger 5 was no more. Hungry and deflated, we postponed the search.

The next day, however, yielded impressive results. Having taken the Keio line out to Kichijoji to visit the Ghibli Museum, we stumbled across Village Vanguard. An American-themed burger bar, cranking out Beatles hits, it was the perfect find. Not mentioned in any Tokyo burger round-ups, this was a place worth missing breakfast for. Avocado burgers the size of a human head, chili dog burgers to overwhelm even the biggest of meat fanatics and stacks of US craft beers to guzzle on. At 1100 yen a burger, Village Vanguard was a steal too.

But by no means is the search over. We might have left Tokyo for a few weeks, but we’ll be hounding out more meat treats in Osaka and Hiroshima, before returning to the capital and seeing if we can find a place that serves up a burger better than Village Vanguard. Wherever that is, it has a lot to live up to.

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Deep-fried frog and other Japanese delicacies

My Japanese is, quite frankly, appalling. I can manage hello and thank you, but beyond that I’m a mass of confusion when confronted with signs at subway stations or speed-talking waiters. Thankfully, my girlfriend Keeley went to the trouble of doing a language exchange with a Japanese student in London last year. Ordering coffee and asking where the nearest (heated) toilet is doesn’t faze her.

But even her impressive attempts at the local language left her stumped when we went to Hambe, a basement restaurant near Ueno station, where the menus were all in Kanji. We were taken there by Mizuki, Kee’s language exchange friend who’s now moved back to Tokyo. It was his choice and was an absolute winner.

We’d been told to expect ‘Japanese pub food’. What we got was an incredible time-warp feast. See, Hambe’s menu is themed on post-war Japan, its walls bedecked in classic original ads and posters from the 50s. Having given Mizuki cart blanche to order whatever took his fancy, we were treated to an array of bizarre and delicious dishes. I’ll admit I was stumped when the corned beef arrived, but was fully on board when what we believe to be deep-fried sparrow landed on the table. By the time the crunchy frog (pictured above with me pre-eating) was served, I realised this was a culinary experience we could never have had had Keeley not made the effort with the language while I blithely flicked through guide books.

This wasn’t just off kilter cuisine though. Mizuki also ordered Taka-Yaki, deep-fried octopus balls from Hiroshima, as well as Yakitori, grilled meat from Osaka, as well as cardamom infused monja cabbage. This was all washed down with a strong plum liquor on the rocks and plentiful glasses of Japanese beer. 

What did Hambe teach me? I really need to give the Japanese phrase book buried in my bag more attention. And that eating frogs whole is a beautiful thing.

 

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Onsen, or how I learned to stop worrying and get naked

 I’ve never been one for tearing off my clobber in public. Call me British, call me old fashioned, but I just prefer to leave some things to the imagination when it comes to swimming in open spaces or preparing to get sweaty in a steam room. Besides, I can count the number of chest hairs I have on one hand and despite repeated, pathetic attempts to bulk up, have the same skinny frame I had at the age of 18.

Naturally, being this het up was going to be of no use when we made our first visit to an Onsen, a Japanese hot bath. There’s no keeping on your ‘beach nicks’ to preserve your modesty in these small, local spas. Everything is left to hang out so your body feels the benefit of the piping hot natural water.

Keeley and I headed for the Jakotsu-yu Onsen, hidden down a back alley in the Akusaka district of Tokyo. Having slipped our shoes in a locker at the entrance and stumped up ¥450 each to get in, we went our separate ways: Keeley to have a long soak with the ladies of Tokyo, me to stretch my legs in hot water with the city’s salarymen.

Having shoved most of my clothes in a locker, I tentatively shed my boxers and made for the water. Despite being the only gaijin no one paid the least bit of attention to me. Frankly, why should they? They’d seen it all before and couldn’t care less. Lesson in getting over prancing around naked done, I slipped into the 45 degree ‘electric bath’, scolded my feet and felt current surge through my finger tips. This was not quite the chilled out experience I had in mind.

Fortunately, Jakotsu-yu Onsen has two sublime outdoor baths that don’t give you shocks every time you slide into the water. A steaming one at a delightful 42 degrees, as well as an icy plunge pool for boosting circulation. Having soothed myself in these alternately for half an hour, stifling my gasps as I slipped my toes in the plunge pool, I made for the wash area, where Tokyo’s workers were rinsing themselves clean after a hard day at the office.

Clothes safely back on, I headed for the exit, Japan teaching me another vital lesson: no one cares if you strip off (in the right place, of course). Hopefully this will stand me in good stead for next week’s trip to the Onsen of Hakone.

 

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Tokyo and the comfort of strangers

When it comes to sense of direction, only the voice of TomTom is more belligerent than me. Despite being fully aware that my insistence that we’re going in the right direction often rubs up friends and travel companions the wrong way, rarely do I care to admit that my inner compass has gone haywire. It’s an infuriating trait that I need to stamp out over the next few months,that’s for certain.

And today, having marched off the Tokyo subway in a haze of jetlag at 1pm, I busted out my largely useless Google map and set off in search of our hotel. Japan’s bizarre street numbering system wasn’t going to flummox me, no sirree.

Fast forward 30 minutes and Keeley and I are strolling from block to block, luggage weighing heavy on our backs, me desperately claiming that ‘that brick building up ahead looks just like the hotel does on Google Street View’. Of course, I was wrong.

Riding to the rescue, however, were the citizens of Tokyo. Having asked two incredibly polite women where the numbers-only address of our hotel was, they directed us to the kind of hotel that I’ve only ever stayed in on press trips. Large, pricey and very western. This was most definitely not where we would be sleeping tonight, but they said the staff would help us.

And boy were they right. Directed to rest our weary bones on cosy chairs in front of the managers desk, we were handed maps, more printouts and detailed directions to our destination. No hard sell, just a smile and a chirpy parting shot: “Hopefully next time you can stay with us.” I tried to imagine any hotel in London ever being this friendly. Frankly, I couldn’t.

Hitting the road again, we made progress but were again soon lost in the Tokyo backstreets. With businessmen heading back to work after lunch everywhere, one kind gent took pity on us and not only gave us directions, but walked us to out hotel, where I’m now battling fatigue and writing this post. He spoke no English, we spoke no Japanese, but his willingness to help has already shown me how welcome the Japanese make strangers. Not to mention proving once and for all that I should always seek a second opinion when it comes to getting from A to B.

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