Archive for January, 2009

This weekend in Tokyo

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

Photo: Lynt

Tokyo Food Review: Fancy Katsu at Shunkoutei

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)
Tel: 03-3585-8671
Opening hours: 11.15am – 2.30pm; 5.15 – 9.30pm (L.O.)
Closed on Sundays

Tsukiji market auctions are open again

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.

Photos: chillntravel, china chas, -nathan, yusheng, photojennic

Tokyo etiquette: You just gotta make it to your last train

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.

Photo: Muelish

This weekend in Tokyo

Temperatures are dipping to icy levels in our lovely city, but that doesn’t mean your weekend has to be dull.

+ Learn to appreciate the finer points of sake in a Sake Fundamentals workshop by culinary arts group A Taste of Culture on Sat, Jan 17, 2pm.

+ 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.

Photo: EOSXTi

The Big Issue: A magazine that helps the homeless in Japan

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.

Photo: jetalone

This weekend in Tokyo

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.

Photo: sashimigRaphy

Is there enough fluoride in Tokyo water?

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

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