You’ve no doubt by now noticed that the sites got a bit of a re-design and some things got changed around last week. We wanted to highlight two changes to make sure everyone knows what changed.
The first and biggest is COMMENTS! Registration is no longer required to post a comment on any post. Of course if you already have an account you can still login to ensure your comments are attributed to you, but those who don’t can now post a comment without any long term commitment. Also, on the right you can see some of the recent comments so you’ll always know what the active discussions are. This was the most requested thing we’ve heard from people since our last redesign and we’re excited to see where it leads.
The next change is also something that was heavily requested, and that is a change to the ADS on the sites. You’ll immediately notice fewer of them, but what might not be as obvious is those smaller square ones to the right are specific to this city only and are being sold for a flat rate for a period of time rather than a confusing CPM/traffic/network model. Depending on the city, these range from $7-$175 for a full week. If you purchase one, during that time your ad will be the only one in that spot and will show on every page. We set these up both to make it easier for smaller local businesses to get their ads on our site, and also to help us bring in ads that relate better to our local audiences. Also, keeping these sites online is expensive and every little bit helps.
There are a bunch of other things we changed but we’ll leave those to you to investigate and take advantage of. Hope you like it, and we look forward to seeing you in the comments!!
The folks at MBHQ
Kaiseki dining is notoriously difficult to access as a gaijin in Japan — you need an introduction and even if you have the luck to get a reservation, it’s all clouded in formal Japanese, so it’s not very accessible to your average gaijin.
This is where Rakushokushu Maru comes in: it offers a wonderful alternative for the expat community in Tokyo — modern kaiseki cuisine with an English menu and English-speaking staff. Lest you think it will be swarmed with gaijins, I didn’t get that impression at all when I went. It seemed like there was a 50-50 balance of locals and foreigners.
Maru has a discreet entrance and once inside, you will be ensconced in a cosy restaurant with woody interior and hushed conversation. Apparently, you can order a full course before your reservation or go ala carte. Ours was a last minute decision so we went ala carte and I was pleased with our selection.
We kicked things off wit ha bubbly, cloudy sake, which was gorgeous in its smooth, slightly sweet, slightly tart palate. Be warned, it goes down too easily and you could get quite tipsy from this drink.
Let’s get into the food. I’ve had a couple of kaiseki spreads in ryokans and what we had at Maru matches up in terms of quality. Most of the dishes were simple creations where the extremely fresh meat and produce shone through their herbs and condiments.
This croquette dish was one of the few modern touches in the menu. It wasn’t too heavy because the portions were small and the crust was surprisingly light.
This was probably my least favourite of all the dishes, but only because I wasn’t fond of the barely seared pork slices. The watercress and sauce, on the other hand, were fresh and savoury.
You have to order the rice half an hour in advance and you won’t regret it. It comes in a black cauldron-like pot and what you get is a tasty, moist rice which you eat with pickles and a dried sardine paste (pictured below), which is not for those who dislike pungent fishy aromas.
The most complicated dish during the evening was very kaiseki in nature — a deep-fried minced root vegetable ball that floated in a thick, salty broth with scallions. It was hearty despite its tiny thimble size.
Meat-lovers will swoon over this unadorned smoky platter of roast pork. The secret probably lies in the excellent cut from the freshest of pork and a very subtle marinade on its skin.
Even the bill was done in the spirit of kaiseki. There is usually no direct exchange of money for authentic kaiseki dinners and customers pay their bill via bank transfers a few days or even weeks after their meal. Maru placed the bill simply as a number scribbled on a piece of paper in a cloth envelope, so we put our cash in there, and that was it. We paid a little over the amount required but didn’t stay for the change, but I wonder if we’d waited, would there have been a receipt? By the way, the bill was split between four people, so it was about 8,000JPY per head. Not bad at all for such a classy spread.
Address: Aoyama KT Building B1F, 5-50-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Opening hours: Lunch: 1130 – 1400 (Mon – Fri); dinner 1800 – 0100 (Fri 1800 – 0200; Sun 1800 – midnight)
Nearest station: Omotesando (B2 exit)
Spring is upon us and the sakuras (cherry blossoms) are going to explode everywhere very soon. The exciting thing about the sakura season is nobody really knows when it will happen till just a few days before it will actually happen. It seems this weekend will mark the start of gazing at pink flowers and the whole of Japan will be celebrating.
Hanami (means flower viewing) parties make any sober Japanese (or gaijin) come out of their shell. I think it’s the abundance of warm sunshine after a drab, cold winter and everyone wants to come out and play (plus a lot of booze is involved).
If you are a hanami newbie, you might need some pointers to thoroughly enjoy the season.
Reserve a spot early. Spread a ground sheet with your name and arrival time to “book” your spot. It’s a pain but somebody has to do it if you want an excellent spot in a popular park (eg. Yoyogi, Inokashira etc).
Further inside the park is better. While being near the station has its plus points, you may find it way too crowded to truly enjoy your hanami party. You don’t really want to be squashed right up with your neighbour’s guitar playing, loud drunken musings, and wild dancing. So, search for a place further central in the park where fewer people will be inclined to venture.
Bring warm togs. Don’t let the sun fool you — it may be warm at midday but once the sun starts fading in the late afternoon, it actually gets cold very quickly. A thick scarf and an extra jacket will do you just fine.
Don’t drink too much alcohol. Well, this would probably apply only to the ladies, and it’s not dished out with prissy intentions. See, there aren’t many toilets available in parks, and even if there are, each toilet hub would only have a few stalls and the never-ending queues of women lining up to wee is extremely daunting when you have a full (and drunken) bladder.
You don’t want to spend the majority of your hanami party queuing up for a loo or searching for a less crowded one. Advice: just drink less alcohol and pace the fluids; go to the toilet before you really have to as it will save you a lot of mental trauma.
Take along entertainment. A hanami party typically lasts the whole day, so conversation might dry up even for the chattiest of people. Some folks might bring along a book or magazine, or a portable CD player (or rather, these days, an iPod and portable speakers). Feel free to bring cards or a guitar. Just think about how you would like to enjoy the perfect picnic.
Give some thought to food. Conbini snacks serve some people well enough but it’s likely that the conbini closest to the park will be jam-packed with a huge crowd clamouring to get their food and drinks. Nab an awesome sakura-themed bento box from a department store, or make your own goodies. Salads and finger food work best, but you might want to consider a small hot pot if you are going to linger after dusk. Warm soup with delicious meat and veggies will help you party on, instead of running back home.
Be responsible for your trash. You’ve got to do something about the used disposable plates, utensils, and napkins, so remember to include gomi (rubbish) bags in your picnic basket.
Spots that rock during hanami:
Chidorigafuchi (near the Yasukuni Shrine and Imperial Palace)
As a Singaporean-born Chinese, I’m always in the mood for Chinese food, but sadly, there’re very few establishments that have authentic, affordable, and delicious Chinese dishes.
I’ve become jaded about sticky and sweet ma po tofu, starchy vegetable stir-fries, stale-looking cha han (fried rice) and fancy Japanesey dim sum.
For a change of scenery (and culinary palate), we took ourselves off to Yokohama’s Chinatown in search of a great meal.
If you are not fussed enough to go as far as Nikko or Kamakura for a day trip out of central Tokyo, Yokohama is an excellent and convenient destination that is just 20 minutes on the express train from Shibuya. Yokohama may be a also city but it has a certain quaintness about it — it’s quieter, more spacious, and moves at a more languid pace.
Here are a few pictures of Chinatown in all its red glory.
We poked around and found authentic Chinese ingredients, like fried shallots, fiery-hot chili paste, and dried scallops, but strangely they mingled next to Thai curries and coconut milk.
The ubiquitous nikuban (meat bun) stalls were at almost every corner we turned. They looked fat and yummy.
Although the restaurants on the main Chinatown street beckoned with their shiny new menus and extravagant offerings, my friend and I decided to dine at a hole in the wall type of Chinese eatery to get away from the common fare so readily available.
As we ambled down the dark little side lanes, we spotted lively shops promising delicious dishes with the aroma of garlic and oyster sauce wafting out. Rule of thumb while hunting: always pick a more crowded restaurant than an empty one. And so we did.
We got a hearty all-you-can-eat dim sum spread for only 2,500JPY.
The only things that had a Japanese twist were the spinach dumplings. They used sticky mochi as the skin but they tasted pretty good anyway.
I don’t know the Japanese pronunciation of the shop’s name so here are pictures of the kanji and the address, in case you want to look for this place. I wouldn’t say it was out-of-this-world dim sum but it was very good for its price and the dumplings were all succulent and savory like they should be. The sizes are normal (read: not miniscule Japanese servings) so you will feel stuffed to the brim.
+ Tap into your creative side and feel inspired by Festival/Tokyo, a performing arts festival that is on till the end of March. This weekend, there are four exciting events going on: Clouds. Home, Sunshine 63, Fireface, Shinkan Shonen (Kumquat Seed). Our top pick is Sunshine 63 as the audience gets to take part in the performance. For more details, surf over to the official website.
+ The weather will probably be wet and miserable, so if you don’t want to head out in the rain, hole up in your nook and watch funny Japanese commercials on Youtube. Here are a few suggestions: an old sake anime ad, a weird but kinda cool MacDonald’s ad, a bizarre exercise equipement one and lots more.
+ If movies are what you need to switch off from that stressful work week, there are three movies out that may tickle your fancy as an escape from reality: Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, or Disaster! (a claymation flick by the Team America guys. Yes, it was released in 2005, and it finally made it to the big screen in Tokyo, like…now).
+ It could be time to get yourself to hugely popular French crepe café, Le Bretagne. Park yourself there nice and early at 11.30am or as late as 15.00pm as it’s hard to get a table during peak lunch hour. Go sweet with fruit and syrup or hit the spot with a savoury plate of eggs and ham.
The weekend is upon us and one of the best things you can do for yourself is head to a brilliant brunch.
Gallerie Vie may be tucked right in the centre of Tokyo’s chic district in Omotesando but the café is located around the corner from Issey Miyake on a quiet lane. Part of a women’s boutique, Tomorrowland, the café sits on the second floor with a terrace.
I love Gallerie Vie because it’s convenient but yet you don’t really feel you are in Tokyo. I always feel I’m ready to languish in what looks like a lovely living and dining room located who-knows-where with excellent food.
Even though the set lunch is priced slightly above 1,500JPY, you get thoughtful little touches like delicious olives before your meal arrives.
There is also a bread table where you can help yourself to parmesan cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and four different kinds of bread.
Every visit to this café feels a little new because their menu changes fairly often. I’m an ardent fan of their seafood pilaf, but it has been struck off for other dishes like gratin (pictured below) and steak.
For something doused in cream, it wasn’t overly heavy with its reasonable serving and vegetable-only ingredients.
My companions had the tomato-based spaghetti and minced chicken. I didn’t try it but judging from the way they relished it, it was pretty damn good.
The set usually comes with a drink — tea, coffee, or juice and a small bowl of garden salad. In the summer they make a stupendous milky iced latte but the hot version will also make you sigh with gratitude as you wax and wane over what you plan to do over the weekend.
Address: 3-18-9 Minami-aoyama 2F
Opening hours: Lunch – 1130 – 1530 daily; closes at 2000 (LO 1930)
Nearest station: Omotesando station Exit A4
“I hate it!” is what a lot of people say about karaoke, but it’s one of the most popular things to do in Tokyo after dinner with friends.
Although it’s a predominantly Asian pastime, I think if you did a survey on who loves or hates karaoke, you could probably end up with a 50-50 result and it doesn’t matter where you come from.
But since you’re reading this, you are probably swaying on whether or not to grab that mike and let it rip. You’ve maybe even sat in on a couple of sessions but you’ve resisted singing at all costs.
It’s easier for me to embrace karaoke since I’m Asian and it’s everywhere, but I’ve had to climb over my own hurdles of fear and embarrassment in the beginning. Perhaps I’ve shed a lot of self-consciousness over such things since my awkward teenage years, but I’ve come a long way from being a shy lass to a thick-skinned woman.
So, here’s some advice on how to be brave at karaoke:
Choose familiar songs. It could be a really old tune by The Carpenters or The Beatles, but if you can remember the music and some of the words, you’ve won half the battle. Don’t select cool, new songs because they are really hard to sing. Would you rather look stupid over a rap song or go slightly off-key with an old classic? The choice is obvious.
Have a few drinks. I always hear these stories about people who used to be so reluctant to sing at karaoke, but once they down a few shots, they’re turn into a karaoke animal. Liquid courage is your friend.
Partner up. This will take your shyness away by at least 80 per cent because if you don’t know the words, you can hide your uncertainty behind someone else’s voice. Nobody really knows who flubbed which lines when two people take over the mike. It’s also fun to sing with a buddy.
Laugh at yourself. Though some people are truly good at carrying a tune, most folks are mediocre (like you), so don’t worry too much about not getting it completely right. Joking while you’re singing is fun, but like most things that make you laugh, you can’t plan the punch line. Just go with the flow and relax.
What are you waiting for? Just do it.
The chill is letting up a little (or we’re just getting used to the cold — I know I am!) so don’t hole up in your apartment. Get out there and make sure you soak up some of that wintry sun and gorgeous blue skies Tokyo has to offer.
+ Hang out with Tokyo’s Rockabilly Club at the entrance of Yoyogi Park on Sunday afternoon. The sight of so many Elvises will make you laugh out loud.
+ Sign up for tennis lessons or a tennis getaway with Globa Tennis. The instructors speak French, English, and Japanese, so they are very expat-friendly.
They don’t just do lessons in central Tokyo, but organize one and two-day tennis retreats that are no further than three hours away from the city. Think Mount Fuji area, Karuizawa, or Nagano — all beautiful locations with meals provided.
+ Okay, the weather report says it may rain a little on Saturday, Jan 31, but don’t stick your head in the sand and watch cable TV. Grab a book or magazine and head down to Azabu-Juban’s cozy Windsor Café for heartwarming sandwiches, pasta, and pizza. 1-5-10 Azabu Juban, tel: 03-3405-4497.
+ If you’re doing the office Valentine’s Day game, stock up on good chocolate before the maniacal prices hit you smack in the face. Two weeks prior to the (dreaded) event of giri choco (obligation chocolate) is a good time to buy your choccy tokens. But if you have hon chocco (sincere chocolate) in mind, the only place to go is Jean-Paul Hevin if you want to impress. Located at Omotesando Hills and Isetan.
+ For a night of chic clubbing, Le Baron serves up cool cocktails and a fashionable crowd. This Saturday’s gig is called Art At Night Project: See Art With Mind Half-Asleep. The Tokyo club scene is definitely not just about spinning a few good tunes and you may stumble onto something far more intriguing. Aoyama Centre Building, B1F, 3-8-40 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku
Honestly, I never thought highly of katsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) and filed it under greasy food to eat on the skinkansen or when you take a lunch break at a rest stop on your way out to the boonies.
The picture above is a bowl of katsu don I took while having lunch in Nagano. It was pretty tasty but I couldn’t look at pork for awhile after that. I also feel it has an image where men and teeangers chow down on the stuff because it’s cheap and yummy.
But there is very good katsu to be had restaurant-style and there’s a lot more to it than just dousing everything in tonkatsu sauce. For a lesson on excellent katsu, head to tonkatsu joint Shunkoutei in Akasaka-mitsuke.
This classy corner served wine with chic jazz tunes murmuring in the background and you do anticipate some special nosh coming your way.
To kick things off, tiny cream cheese toasted bread slivers made their way to the table.
And then came a big platter of Japanese pickles and a variety of pate. The flavors were fairly delicate and Japanese in nature; even the meat chunks that sat on a bed of lightly marinated red cabbage leaves.
We decided not to order rice and I’m glad we didn’t because the katsu dishes were generous in size.
Some people may think deep-frying oysters are a shame but the juicy, sea taste is still preserved under the breading and I was sorry to have my last bite.
The lemon tar tar was definitely a high-class sauce with chunks of pickles, mayo, and other mysterious herbs that made it taste oh-so-scrummy.
Do give the strange-looking froth a go because it’s also delicious with seafood katsu. It’s actually whipped soy and it gives a light, salty punch to your seafood fry.
The star of the show was the black pork katsu. I don’t know how it could remain so tender despite having been dunked in hot, boiling oil. Try dipping your katsu into some salt as it gives it a completely different flavor.
I realized that there is a subtle art to deep-fried food — the secret to not feeling you have overdosed on oil is the feather-light bread crumbs and the different dips. You will find that your katsu meal just transforms into a much more colorful culinary experience.
Unless you’re a big eater, katsu will fill you up in no time. We rolled out of there without dessert and wondered how anyone could stomach their multi-course set that includes an appetizer, soup, seafood, pork, rice, dessert, coffee or tea.
Highly recommended to those bringing out friends, family, or business associates who aren’t so keen on Japan’s funkier offerings.
Address: 2-17-69 Akasaka, Muto Corpo Blg, 1F (Just tucked away on the left of the big sqaure at Prudential Tower; opposite Citibank)
Opening hours: 11.15am – 2.30pm; 5.15 – 9.30pm (L.O.)
Closed on Sundays
The auctions are the real reason to head to Tokyo’s famous fish market, Tsukiji — so I keep hearing.
Personally I’ve not been to the 5am auctions but I’ve been to the market twice early in the morning.
I realized that this experience is not for everyone. If you dislike seafood or are indifferent to it, you should skip this tourist attraction. You won’t have any regrets.
But if you love your fish the way I love my mine and the myriad of sea creatures Nature has to offer, it will be visual feast.
Yes, raw and barely alive, and I love it that way.
I’ve a couple of tips as a wee veteran:
*If you can’t stomach sushi first thing in the morning, just head over for an early lunch at around 11 or so.
*If you’re drunk and have a hare-brained idea to eat sushi after clubbing by way of the first train, don’t.
*If you dislike the smell of wet markets and raw meat, skip the wholesale section and just head to the sushi restaurants.
Lastly, don’t queue at the restaurants with the long lines — their sushi is not any better than the lesser known ones. They just didn’t make it to the Lonely Planet.
But since the auctions are open to the public again, I might venture out to take a peek at the boisterous daily event.
Tokyoites take their last train, or shu den, very seriously. Most folks who live in the suburbs just don’t flag cabs home, even if you live within the Yamamote line. I think the only people who do board the exorbitant taxis are those who only have a short distance to go or are just too drunk to care.
It’s not uncommon for Tokyoites to set a reminder on their keitai, or mobile phones, that it’s time to leave for the station.
In which case, it’s perfectly fine to down your drink, throw down your share of the bill, and take off with a hurried goodbye.
Once, I was having yakitori with a bunch of peeps at Piss Alley in Shinjuku and one hapless dude suddenly realized his last train was going to pull up at 11.27pm and it was 11.20pm. Man, did he beat the hell outta there. As he was grabbing his backpack, he apologized for not paying the bill and someone else shouted after him, “It’s okay, your treat next time!”
On another occasion, I was walking towards Shibuya station with some friends after dinner and one guy piped up, “Sorry, it’s my last train. See you!” and sprinted off. Or some folks just don’t join for “one last drink” because they just have to go. I also heard that if those who do miss their shu den may actually either a) try to find another bunch of friends who are staying out all night or b) call a parent or sibling who drives to come pick them up. The capsule hotel is truly the last resort.
But once you get on that train, you can simply relax.
Temperatures are dipping to icy levels in our lovely city, but that doesn’t mean your weekend has to be dull.
+ Authentic Swiss fondue with red wine will warm you up from your tum at Life Up. This cozy joint won’t let you forget you’re in Tokyo, so expect izakaya fare on the menu. 4-2-1 Sakuragaoka, Shibuya, Tokyo, 03-3476-5663/5758.
+ It’s freezing outside but you can get fit in your living room anyway. Check out latest exercise DVD, Core Rhythms, which Japanese women are going nuts over. Some say this Latin dance based workout beats Billy Blanks yelling army-like drills in your face. Available at Amazon Japan or if you’re pinching pennies, eBay is always an excellent place.
+ We know you love heading to brunch hotspot Fujimamas on Sundays, so instead of heading straight home for a snooze, take a leisurely stroll down to Spiral along Aoyama-dori. Poke around its quirky art exhibitions and make sure you browse the shop where you will find rare products — from crafts to home wares to bath & body. You would definitely find a cool thingamabob for your home or a great gift for a friend.
Although there are homeless people in every country, it seems more jarring to see a ragged-looking individual sitting on the sidewalk in super fast-paced, futuristic Tokyo — a metropolis that reeks of material wealth.
But it’s precisely this fact that makes it hard for those who can’t get back on their feet so easily after being retrenched. If you lose your salary, you can’t pay the rent, you get evicted, and if you don’t have a residential address, you can’t find a job.
In a city that seems cold and relentless, there are those who do want to lend a hand: the Big Issue, a non-profit magazine that helps the homeless help themselves. It’s heartening to know this, in the face of recent news that a Catholic organization was ordered by the government to stop giving free meals to the homeless along the Sumida River.
Written by journalists, the Big Issue (300JPY) is sold to the homeless for 140JPY, but they pocket the 160JPY as profit. Those who are absolutely destitute can be given the first 10 copies for free to have a small kick-start.
The idea was plucked from the UK, where the original Big Issue was founded by John Bird and the Roddicks of The Body Shop in 1991. Japan started its own arm in 2003 and has even branched out in publishing a book by the homeless.
Called Sekai ichi atatakai jinsei sodan: shiawase no jinsei reshipi (The World’s Most Heartwarming Advice Column: Recipe for a Happy Life), the book has 46 sets of questions and responses tackling life’s stumbling blocks. The commonsensical pearls of wisdom drives home that the homeless do know a thing or two about life through their hard-knock experiences.
So the next time you see a homeless person peddling the Big Issue, don’t be afraid to dish out 300JPY and read as much nihongo as you can.
It’s brrr cold, so let’s slow down a notch from all the end-of-year partying, and breathe…
+ If you’re craving for a hot cocktail, you should head to Bar Radio for a warm, civilized drink in an old school classy bar. 3-10-34 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3402-2668; Opening hours: 1800 – 0100.
+ Cooking is therapy. Broaden your skills at hot culinary school of the moment — ABC Cooking Studio. Food and kitchen vocabulary in nihongo are easy enough so take the plunge and try learning how to conjure homey alchemy in a foreign language.
+ Feel like you overindulged during the festive season? Mosie over to Eat More Greens in Azabu Juban for a healthy vegetarian meal that actually tastes good, even for meat-lovers. 2-2-5 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, 03-3798-3191.
+ Stay home this Sunday, Jan 11, and space out to a couple of awesome fantasy flicks, Eragon (1330 on Channel W, also known as WOWOW) and Beowulf (1530 on the same channel).
+ If you’re plain scared of getting a bad haircut because of mis-communicating in broken Japanese, you can allay such fears at Who Ga New York in Akasaka where the good people there give great service in perfect eigo. Call 03-5575-0855 to book an appointment.
Yes and no. It depends on which side of the fluoride fence you sit on. Some folks think fluoride makes no difference to dental health or is even harmful — perhaps it’s flossing regularly that is important.
In any case, I was surprised to learn that not all developed countries, particularly Japan, have fluoride in their water. I come from Singapore where the water has what I consider comfortable levels of fluoride to prevent bacteria from festering.
As my curiosity was perked on this topic, I searched on the Internet and found that Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia used to fluoridate their public water, but have since stopped.
An expat doctor I got to know in my early days in Tokyo informed me that the fluoride levels in toothpaste in Japan are actually not enough, if you are in the camp that thinks the chemical is an essential part of dental hygiene.
Even foreign branded toothpaste, like Colgate and Aquafresh, are not allowed to have the same amount of fluoride we have back home.
What’s the solution? Either stock up when you go home for a visit, or buy from amazon.com (not amazon.co.jp) or other online stores that ship internationally. It’s not illegal to bring in your own toothpaste into Japan — fluoride toothpaste is just not sold in the country.
Photo: Okinawa Soba